published Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Clemson's Swinney excited about veteran team

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney has guided the Tigers back to national prominence with consecutive 11-2 records, capping last season with a thrilling Orange Bowl win over Ohio State.

The Tigers defeated Auburn in 2011 and 2012 and beat Georgia last year, but they have lost five straight against state rival South Carolina. Swinney, a former Alabama receiver and assistant coach, was a guest Wednesday afternoon on Press Row on ESPN Chattanooga's 105.1 The Zone.

Q: A lot of these early preseason rankings have you guys around 21st or 22nd, so there is a sense Clemson could take a little step back this season. How would you assess your team?

A: "I think we've got a good team, and this is the most veteran team I've had since I've been a head coach. I've got the most seniors and the most juniors, and these guys have won more games in the last three years than any group ever that's come through here. Everybody talks about what we've lost, but nobody wants to focus on what we've got, and that's what I focus on.

"We've got a bunch of great players who have a lot of experience, including winning a conference championship and having back-to-back 11-win seasons. We've got some voids, but that's why you recruit. We don't get caught up in where we're ranked, because it really is so irrelevant. This should be by far the best defense I've had as a head coach."

Q: The Clemson-South Carolina rivalry may be the most underrated in college football. You and Steve Spurrier seem to have fun occasionally at the other's expense. How would you describe your relationship with him?

A: "I have a good relationship with Coach Spurrier and his wife. They are good folks, and he has done an unbelievable job at South Carolina. They had one 10-win season ever before he got there, and he's really made that the norm. They're having the best tenure in the history of their school, and it's a tough thing when it's your rival, because we're the same way in that we've had some great things happen in the last several years.

"We finished as high as seventh last year, but they finished fourth. It's definitely been a positive in terms of the sense of pride in our state. We're a small population, and to have two top-10 teams in a row is pretty unusual and impressive. The rivalry used to be just about this state, but now it has more national relevance in terms of rankings and stuff. They've come out on the right end of that game the last several years, and that's something we have to get corrected."

Q: If you could change one thing about college football, what would it be?

A: "I would have an early signing period on Aug. 1. That would clean up a lot of the mess that we have going on in college football and some of the issues that give the game a black eye. There are so many things that have to be corrected, and they've taken some good steps forward as far as the meal plan and that kind of stuff, but the scholarship needs to be modernized.

"We're the only sport that doesn't have an early signing period, and I've never understood that. Recruiting has changed so much, and on Aug. 1 of last year, we had 17 guys committed. All 17 signed with us."

Q: There is a perception that the ACC is Clemson and Florida State and everybody else. Is that fair?

A: "We've got an excellent conference. We had 11 bowl teams last year, and that's never been done before in any conference. I think that speaks to the competitiveness and parity of our league. We had not until the last couple of years produced the 12-0 or 11-1 type of teams with us and Florida State, but I think there will be a lot of quality teams moving forward.

"There are a lot of teams on the rise, and I'm proud of our league. We've stepped out of this league and had some huge wins, and that's what we've got to continue to do. I'm proud of Florida State, because we needed somebody to punch through and get that national championship back in this conference."

Q: You recruited the late Victor Ellis [from Red Bank High] when you were an Alabama assistant, and you spoke at his funeral in March of 2008. What memories do you have of Victor?

A: "Believe it or not, I'm sitting here looking at a picture of Victor Ellis. I've got two pictures of him in my office, and I just have so many great memories of him. It's sad to see a young man with so much life to live and so much hope and promise get taken away from us so early. God always has a plan, and I remember him calling me and telling me he had moved to Charlotte and then two weeks later called and told me about the cancer.

"It was tough going through that with him, but I loved Victor Ellis. He was a good person and an excellent player, and he just had a beautiful smile and a sweet spirit to him."

Q: Take Clemson and Florida State out of the equation, and what's the best atmosphere in the ACC?

A: "I think N.C. State and Virginia Tech would be pretty close. They both have great atmospheres and do a pretty good job."

Q: The ACC recently decided on playing eight league games. There will be years in which you play those eight, South Carolina and Notre Dame. Are you OK with that?

A: "Heck, I've played Auburn three straight years in addition to South Carolina, and we played Georgia last year and are playing them again this year. That's been the norm for us -- eight conference games, South Carolina and one major opponent like Georgia, Auburn and Notre Dame."

Q: "You open with Georgia again. Is Todd Gurley as good as you've seen in recent years as far as tailbacks go?

A: "He's a great back, and we recruited him and [Keith] Marshall really, really hard out of high school. I thought we were going to get both of them, and when Marshall committed to them, I thought surely we would get Gurley. Both of those guys are elite backs, but the combination of speed and size and power and strength that Gurley possesses is really rare.

"We had a tough battle with those guys last year, and I know it's going to be even tougher this year going 'Between the Hedges,' but we're looking forward to it."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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