ATHENS — Dabo Swinney has coached two national championship teams, posted a 4-2 College Football Playoff record and won six straight ACC titles, but he made it clear Clemson approaches spring drills as a new beginning.
“It is a new team, we don’t get to carry anything over, good or bad,” Swinney, entering his 13th full year as the program’s head coach, said during his opening spring football press conference via Zoom moments before the Tigers opened practice.
“We start over, this is a new team, 2021, and a new challenge ahead, and we’re excited about that.”
Clemson opens the season against Georgia, a school 72 miles away and a former annual rival, on Sept. 4 in Charlotte, N.C.
It was Swinney who said two years ago that he would play the Bulldogs every year if it was up to him, and less than one year later it was announced this 2021 neutral site meeting would take place.
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This will mark the first time since 2014 the teams have met. Both sides seem eager to rekindle a rivalry that featured matchups almost every year from 1962 to 1987. There were 24 games in that 26-year span, the exceptions coming in 1966 and 1972.
That said, there was no talk of Georgia or the season-opening game during Swinney’s 48-minute press conference on Wednesday,
Instead, Swinney discussed offseason changes on his Clemson support staff including the newly created director of scouting position.
Here are three takeaways from Swinney’s press conference on Wednesday:
Swinney reiterated Clemson’s preference and plans to look to its roster to fill needs rather than use the transfer portal, as Kirby Smart has successfully done at UGA the past two seasons.
But the 51-year-old Swinney is also not so stubborn as to be unprepared to change with the times, if necessary.
“We have recruited very well, and we’ve built this program by developing the talent the we’ve brought in this program,” Swinney said. “There’s no one that’s left our program that we can’t replace in the locker room. That will always be our philosophy, but the rules have changed.”
Clemson has lost five players to transfers over the past six months — Georgia has lost nine to transfers by comparison.
“We’re not going to let him have any contact, or do anything live or any scrimmage or anything like that,” Swinney said. “But he will be in our normal practice mode and get in some of our team’s separate periods He has another big appointment coming up in March, but he will be practicing on a limited basis.”
Swinney, unprompted, provided a list of all of the players who will be out or limited in spring drills on account of offseason surgery and injuries.
• Senior TE Luke Price
• Senior CB Jack McCall
• Junior DE K.J. Henry
• Junior FS Lannden Zanders
• Senior LB Baylon Spector
• Sophomore DT ET Reuben
• Freshman DL DeMonte Capehart
• Senior OG Matt Bockhorst
• Junior TE Davis Allen
Swinney said there are also players out on account of positive COVID tests and tracing, but he did not elaborate on who or how many.
Georgia football has not made any announcements about players who have tested positive for COVID in the offseason, and its policy has been not to reveal any information.
Owning up, Dabo style
Swinney was asked about Clemson’s 49-28 CFP Sugar Bowl semifinal loss to Ohio State last January, and he didn’t mince words, comparing it to one of the program’s most embarrassing defeats.
“We stunk, we played terrible defensively,(and) it was probably the worst defense we played since the Orange Bowl in 2011 when we got smashed there in Miami (70-33 by West Virginia).
“It is what it is, we played terrible technique, we got beat up front… we did a poor job across the board and they were just better than us. They lined up and outplayed us, kicked our tails every which way.”
Swinney made the point of how football is a momentum game, much more so than some realize.
“One of the things so understated is momentum,” Swinney said. “Little things that create bigger issues, and then sometimes games can get away.
“Two years ago we beat Alabama by 28 points — we weren’t 28 points better than Alabama, but we were that day.”
Swinney said winning big games like that doesn’t allow for much of a margin for error, but he pointed out Clemson has shown it can handle the big stage in the CFP Era.
“In the playoff era, Alabama has 8 (wins), we got 6 and the next closest team is Ohio State, they’ve got 3,” Swinney said. “You put us head-to-head, (games involving) Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama, we’re 4-3, Alabama is 3-3 and Ohio State is 2-3.”
Georgia has been to the playoffs once, beating Oklahoma in overtime and losing to Alabama in the 2017 season’s CFP Championship game in Atlanta.
The 2021 season-opening game will be the first head-to-head meeting between Smart and Swinney, though Smart was the defensive coordinator for the Alabama team that beat Clemson 45-40 after the 2015 season.
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