CLEMSON, S.C. -- Even Dabo Swinney understands why his comments after a 51-14 throttling at the hands of Florida State might have rankled a few fans on both sides of the blowout, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t believe what he said.
Clemson had been beaten in every facet of the game last October, but Swinney insisted if the Tigers played Florida State another 10 times, they would’ve won five. Clemson fans, who’d watched their ACC title hopes put on life support against the Seminoles for a second straight year, groaned. Florida State fans, astonished at the suggestion that Clemson was on equal footing with the Seminoles' juggernaut, laughed.
The controversy lingered into the offseason until Swinney broached the subject with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher to clear the air. There are no hard feelings, Swinney insists, and Fisher laughed off any perceived slight.
But here’s the thing: Swinney also hasn’t changed his opinion one iota.
“It’s just ... that’s my confidence in my team,” Swinney said. “It was a bad day for us, and we didn’t really give ourselves a chance. We fumbled the first play of the game then came right back with a scoop-and-score. The defense hadn’t really been on the field and it’s 17-0. We didn’t have a chance to break a sweat.”
There’s some logic to Swinney’s argument, of course, and his confidence is understandable given Clemson’s run of three straight 10-win seasons. But as the Tigers look ahead to 2014, Swinney is trying to find a balance between those excuses and explanations and the immutable truth that his team's only losses the past two years have been significant ones -- two against Florida State that cost the Tigers a conference title, and two against South Carolina that cost them a state championship.
Swinney understands the ramifications of Clemson's rare setbacks, but he also doesn’t want to focus on them. He doesn’t want to sound as if he’s explaining away ugly performances, but he also doesn’t want his evaluation clouded by the final numbers on the scoreboard.
Against FSU last year, early turnovers doomed any semblance of a game plan.
Against South Carolina six weeks later, a 6-0 turnover deficit undermined Clemson in a game the Tigers actually tallied more yards.
Go back to 2012, and Swinney can point to halftime leads on the road in Tallahassee and at home against the Gamecocks, but neither ended with a win.
Yes, the Tigers have lost. But they weren’t overmatched.
“We lost two games [last year] and had 10 turnovers,” Swinney said. “Therein lies the problem. If we’re going to win those games, we’ve got to take care of the ball better. Physically, we can match up.”
So that’s the message Swinney wants his team to understand this offseason. Well, that’s one of the messages anyway.
In the Tigers’ locker room, there’s a clock counting down to the 2014 game against South Carolina, with the numbers “0-5” underneath -- a reminder of how long it has been since Clemson toppled its in-state rival.
The Florida State game requires no countdown clock. Other banners tell the story for that game. Florida State has won consecutive ACC titles and, after last year’s drubbing of the Tigers, went on to win a national championship.
“It’s not a daily focus, but it’s always there,” Swinney said. “Because you live with it. Every day, all year long. It is what it is. There’s nothing you can do. … We’ve lost to two top-10 teams, right there with us.”
It’s not an obsession, Swinney insists, but it’s also hard to ignore. Clemson’s success the past two seasons is unprecedented in the program’s recent history, but it comes with two distinct asterisks. And Swinney knows that if the Tigers could have erased just one of those losses, they might have been playing for a national title.
And that leaves Swinney with that same question he was asked after last year's loss to Florida State. Is Clemson really that far off?
“You look at those games and ask what happened,” Swinney said. “Were they physically better? You have to evaluate that stuff. They’re not.”