Message from ‘confident’ Clemson Tigers: We belong in national football championship discussion

Clemson at ACC Football Kickoff

Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney and Clemson players Deshaun Watson and Ben Boulware speak at Friday's ACC Football Kickoff at the Westin.
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Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney and Clemson players Deshaun Watson and Ben Boulware speak at Friday's ACC Football Kickoff at the Westin.

Think versus know.

That was Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s theme Friday at the ACC Football Kickoff. This will be Swinney’s ninth full season as the Tigers’ head coach. For the first time in that span, he says his players know they can be good enough to win the national championship.

Clemson went 14-1 last season, losing only to Alabama in the national championship game. They matched up well with the Crimson Tide, ultimately losing 45-40 in Glendale, Ariz.

Swinney’s message Friday to a Charlotte ballroom packed with media was the Tigers belong in any conversation that includes the likes of Alabama and Ohio State. They are now a nationally elite program.

"It’s one thing to dream about something, it’s another thing to experience it," Swinney said. "It’s been a long time since we had a Clemson team with national championship experience and everything that goes with getting that experience.

"This team has an experience that is different from any team I’ve had in the past. Both the good and the bad. The failure is important, perhaps more important than the success."

The Tigers lost some significant talent off that team, notably defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and cornerback Mackensie Alexander.

But Clemson still has abundant talent at impactful positions. They return the best quarterback in the country in Deshaun Watson, who might well win the Heisman Trophy as a junior. They get back wide receiver Mike Williams, who missed most of last season with a fractured neck. Linebacker Ben Boulware and tight end Jordan Leggett are All-American candidates at their respective positions.

Swinney was asked Friday if there might be some hangover associated with the loss to Alabama. Swinney said precisely the opposite is true, that this team will enter training camp confident and hungry.

"We have a highly motivated team. I think it’s just the culture of our program regardless of whether we won 10 or 14" the previous season, Swinney said. "It’s about what is next. What we did last year isn’t going to win it for us this year. You’ve got to earn it all over again. Pay the price all over again.

"We didn’t win the (championship) game. We finished with some regrets and (the objective) is to finish with no regrets."

This is probably Watson’s final college season before he makes himself available in the NFL draft. By all reasonable measures, on and off the field, he’s been a huge success. Two and a half years into his time at Clemson he’s five credits away from completing his degree requirements. And essentially from the day he stepped on the field at Georgia as a true freshman, he has been one of college football’s best players.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton saw that a long time ago. As a high school sophomore, Watson was a camper at one of Newton’s 7-on-7 passing academies. Ever since, Newton has mentored Watson.

What’s been Newton’s message?

"He told me not to get distracted with outside things," Watson said. "Concentrate on the main things."

Clemson is beatable. The Oct. 29 game at Florida State will be a huge challenge and probably decide a spot in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. But the Tigers have plenty of talent and, as Swinney said, a level of experience that is a rarity in college football.

They sound ready for whatever is next.

"We embrace the expectations," Swinney said. "I think our guys understand there’s a small margin for error week in and week out. They understand everything is scrutinized to the nth degree. Not just what you say, but how you say it. That just comes with the territory."

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