A year ago, Dabo Swinney bristled at the suggestion his team lacked something necessary to win a title. When the questions came after a lackluster win at Auburn, a sluggish performance against Troy and a near miracle to beat NC State, he argued that this was merely an indication of how tough it is to win, rather than a sign of some inherent flaw in Clemson’s game plan. Given the ultimate result, he was probably right.
But this year, as the doubts seemed even more reasonable following the departure of Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams, Ben Boulware and Wayne Gallman, Swinney has a different approach, one his team showcased with zealous enthusiasm at Louisville this past Saturday.
“We had two goals,” Swinney said after the game, a 47-21 Clemson win. “One was to win the game, the second was to leave no doubt.”
No doubt. That’s where Clemson stands now, three weeks into the season -- with two straight wins over top-15 opponents -- and squarely on the path back to the College Football Playoff.
Remember where this team was just a month ago? Who was the QB? Would anyone be able to run the ball? Was there still enough passion to win after consecutive trips to the national championship game, to do it all again? Indeed, Clemson was the first defending champion not to earn a top-two ranking the following preseason since 2011.
And now look at the Tigers. They’re back up to No. 2 in the rankings. The concerns about not having Deshaun Watson have been replaced with a nascent fan club for Kelly Bryant, who has posted numbers far ahead of Watson’s totals three games into last season.
The defense might be better than it was a year ago, too, with the development of Austin Bryant on the edge and a secondary that has demonstrated its depth.
If there was a concern, it might have been the ground game. But after Saturday, that appears to be resolved, as well.
While Swinney maintained he has three potential starters at tailback, he was forced to admit that sophomore Tavien Feaster has pushed his way to the front of the line.
“All those guys are going to play, they’ll all get an opportunity,” Swinney said. “But you better make your chances count, and I thought Feaster gave us a spark in the game.”
After a spotty performance by the running game against Auburn and a sluggish first quarter versus Louisville, Feaster entered the game and provided a clear spark. He carried 10 times for 92 yards, showing the elusiveness that first drew comparisons to former Tiger C.J. Spiller.
In all, Clemson averaged 7.55 yards per designed run against Louisville, its best mark since the opening game of the 2012 season.
“I can’t control whether I’m the No. 1 running back or not, but I just need to play up to my abilities,” said Feaster, whose 11 touches against Louisville were two more than he’d had in the first two games combined. “Overall, I think I did pretty good.”
When it was over, Swinney played the role of critic -- something he was loathe to do for much of last season. He noted a few overthrows by his QB -- “Missing the layups,” he said -- Feaster’s ugly missed block on a sack and some struggles by the offensive line. He critiqued the defense for lapses on the lone drive in which Lamar Jackson moved the ball consistently. It was a marked difference from how he spoke of last year’s team, despite its superior performance against the Cardinals.
And perhaps that’s the point. If the goal two years ago was to get to the playoff, and the goal last year was to win it, what’s left? The answer is simply to leave no doubt, and that’s certainly the path Clemson appears to be on now.