New Clemson coach Dabo Swinney should have plenty to worry about for his first game today. But first on his list?
"That’s running down that hill and making sure I get down the hill and don’t fall," Swinney said of Clemson’s traditional entrance into Death Valley.
Swinney will try to bring that enthusiasm to the Tigers, who cap a turbulent week when they play Georgia Tech today.
Swinney was Clemson’s receivers coach until he was tapped Monday to take over for Tommy Bowden, who stepped down amid the Tigers’ disappointing season.
The anticipated Atlantic Coast Conference champions, Clemson (3-3, 1-2 ACC) had fallen flat in Bowden’s 10th season. The dissatisfaction that began in August with the ninth-ranked Tigers’ embarrassing 34-10 loss to Alabama turned to full-blown revolution in their last two games. Clemson managed just seven points in its last six quarters during losses to Maryland and Wake Forest.
Early Monday, athletic director Terry Don Phillips met with Bowden for a candid chat about expectations and the program’s future. Bowden suggested he step down for the good of the team, and Phillips agreed.
Enter "Coach Dabo," a 38-year-old college football lifer who played on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team and later coached for the Crimson Tide until 2000.
Swinney is working to calm his players’ frayed nerves and build fan support. Two hours before today’s kickoff, Swinney will join players on a Tiger Walk — where players march through the crowd to experience cheers and support before the game.
Swinney went with all-orange uniforms to match the predominant color among the Death Valley crowd and urged backers to put players first.
"This is just something you have to go through," Clemson defensive back Haydrian Lewis said of the turbulent season. "It’s a cutthroat business."
But Swinney and the Tigers have several other factors working against them, too.
Swinney quickly let go offensive coordinator Rob Spence, which left game planning to Swinney and new QBs coach Billy Napier.
Quarterback Willy Korn, who Bowden elevated to starter over senior Cullen Harper — this summer’s runaway choice as ACC player of the year — after the team’s 12-7 loss to Wake Forest. Swinney said the more mobile Korn would start today and hopefully bring the Tigers’ attack a missing spark.
And then there’s star tailback C.J. Spiller, out with a hamstring pull suffered in the opening half against the Demon Deacons. Spiller, who leads the Tigers with more than 123 all-purpose yards per game this fall, was sidelined when Clemson desperately needed a playmaker.
Now comes Georgia Tech, one of the ACC’s biggest surprises under first-year coach Paul Johnson.
The Yellow Jackets (5-1, 2-1 ACC) look like they’ve mastered Johnson’s option game, which he used as Navy ended a 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame last fall as the Midshipmen’s coach.
When Georgia Tech struggles on offense, its defense keeps opponents in check.
The Yellow Jackets lead the ACC in points allowed, sacks and rushing defense per game. Their four defensive linemen have combined for 12« sacks and 29 tackles for loss.
Don’t be fooled by Georgia Tech’s 10-7 victory over Gardner-Webb a week ago. The team’s top two quarterbacks, Josh Nesbitt and Flowery Branch grad Jaybo Shaw, are back after missing that game.
"We like to look at it as a wake-up call for the second half of the season," Georgia Tech defensive lineman Derrick Morgan said. "We have a lot of tough ACC games ahead of us and we have to be ready."
How ready the Tigers will be is Swinney’s biggest question. He guarantees only that he and his players will play hard and work through the end of the season to return pride to the Tigers.
"It’s not about coach Bowden, it’s not about me, it’s not about the staff, it’s about these kids, it’s about this football team," Swinney said. "That’s what it’s going to be about, as long as I’m here."