CLEMSON, S.C. — Coach Dabo Swinney smiles when thinking about the challenges Clemson faces this season.
He has just 11 seniors this fall, a suspended star for the opener against Auburn and plenty of supporters still smoldering over the record-setting Orange Bowl flop against West Virginia.
But the fourth-year coach always looks at things with a glass-half-full perspective.
Swinney believes his defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions are close to achieving even greater success than they have the past three years.
“I think that we are on the verge of great things,” Swinney said.
Swinney said there are many hurdles to overcome, none bigger than the perception Clemson’s a program full of problems. Certainly, no one, including Swinney, was happy when the Tigers surrendered a bowl-record number of points to the Mountaineers in that 70-33 loss.
Swinney hired longtime Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables in to fix the breakdowns. He retained one of college football’s hottest offensive assistants in coordinator Chad Morris with a six-year, $7.8 million extension. And the Tigers recruits for 2013 include defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, considered the country’s No. 1 college prospect.
“I’m very confident of where we are and where we’re going,” he said. “We’ve still got hills to climb. It’s not easy. It’s not an easy job, but I love it.”
The love from Clemson fans is not always a two-way street.
Swinney became the team’s interim coach in 2008 when Tommy Bowden left in midseason. Swinney led the Tigers to win four of their last six games that regular season, including a victory over rival South Carolina at Death Valley that left the crowd chanting the coach’s name.
Days later, Swinney got the full-time gig and brought the team its first ACC Atlantic Division title in 2009. But a year later, Swinney was reeling from a 6-7 season – Clemson’s first losing campaign in 12 years – and many fans questioned if the 42-year-old coach was the man for the job.
Things turned around last fall, though, when Swinney’s hire of Morris, a high school coach two seasons earlier, and the addition of wide receiver Sammy Watkins ignited the offense on the way to an 8-0 start and its first ACC championship since 1991.
Again, the good times didn’t last for Swinney.
The Tigers dropped their third straight to South Carolina for the first time in 40 years and, after their ACC title victory over Virginia Tech, were embarrassed by West Virginia – leading to more grumbling about Swinney.
Even with two title game appearances and that ACC championship, Swinney knows he can’t breathe easy at Death Valley.
“This is a tough business, and it’s just part of it,” he said. “We’re coming off the best year we’ve had in 20 years, and people still ain’t happy. So, that’s just the way it is.”
Clemson center Dalton Freeman said the team has drawn motivation this offseason from what they accomplished last year and what they didn’t.
“If you look at the ACC championship when we were at the peak, playing as good a football as you can possibly play. We know we can play with anybody in the country,” he said.
The bowl game, Freeman added, was a case of momentum rolling downhill and crushing the Tigers – something the team shouldn’t forget heading into this fall. “You need to draw motivation from each,” Freeman said.
Things could be tougher for the Tigers this season.
They open Sept. 1 against Auburn, the 2010 national championships, without Watkins, who was suspended two games for an offseason drug arrest. Watkins, the All-American who set school records with 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall, will be back when Clemson opens ACC play against league favorite Florida State on Sept. 22, a game that could get out of hand if the Tigers haven’t improved their defense.
That’s what Venables was hired for. He was part of several national championship runs at Oklahoma and left after 13 years.
Venables is searching to replace defensive linemen Andre Branch, Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson, who combined for 17 of the Tigers 24 sacks last season. The lone returnee on the line is Malliciah Goodman, who said the players have taken to Venables’ fiery style.
“He wants us to do everything as intense as he would do it,” Goodman said. “That is rubbing off on the defense and that’s creating a better defense.”
Maybe the best defense is an offense that can outgun opponents, no matter how big the deficit. Morris said the Tigers left a lot of yards and points on the field last year despite setting school records with 440 yards and 33.6 points a game.
Morris went to Nevada this year to study that team’s “pistol” offense and Oklahoma State to see how coaches freed up star receiver Justin Blackmon despite the focus of defenses.
Morris expects quarterback Tajh Boyd, another record setter with 33 touchdown passes last year, to be more adept at leading the attack. The Tigers will also have senior tailback Andre Ellington, who rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall.
No matter what happens, Swinney has an eye beyond 2012. “I’m just trying to build for the long term here,” he said. “Worked hard for the past three years to build a foundation here.”