Note: The following appears in the August 2019 issue of Orange: The Experience.
Head Coach Dabo Swinney has long preached a “windshield mentality” for his football program, imploring his team to look through the windshield at what is ahead rather than in the rearview at what lies behind. Human nature would seem to warrant a nostalgic look back to major college football’s first 15-0 season since 1897, perhaps with a lingering glance at a 28-point victory against the nation’s top-ranked team to secure Clemson’s second National Championship the last three years. It might suggest one more glimpse at new championship rings or banners bearing the distinction “Best Ever.”
But Clemson’s collective eyes are fixed ahead at the challenges to come in 2019, as “Best Ever” gives way to Swinney’s mantra: “The best is yet to come.” With that guidance in mind, as Clemson looks forward and not backward, it views 2019 as a new opportunity rather than a continuation of the accomplishments of the 2018 squad.
“It’s about starting over and not just reinstalling your offense and defense and kicking game, but it’s also reinstalling your program,” Swinney said during the spring. “Reinstalling the core values of your program and kind of resetting – if you will – in every sense of that word.”
Clemson knows it will compete in 2019 with a target squarely affixed to its iconic Tiger Paw each week. The Tigers can expect to get every team’s best shot and there will be no easing into the upcoming season.
The eyes of the nation will be on the returning National Champions on Aug. 29, when the team will open the season on a Thursday night for the first time in Memorial Stadium history when it welcomes Georgia Tech under the guidance of new Head Coach, Geoff Collins.
The day and evening will be a grand spectacle not just for Clemson, but for the entire Atlantic Coast Conference, as the contest will serve as the first live game broadcast on the ACC Network and will capture Clemson’s gameday atmosphere from pregame through the final whistle. The network stands to be a gamechanger for Clemson and other ACC institutions, serving to highlight a conference that has collected more football national titles than any other conference since 2013 (three of the last six) and more men’s basketball National Championships than any other league since 2015 (three of the last five).
The following week, Clemson will play host to an eagerly awaited rematch, welcoming the 2019 iteration of a Texas A&M squad that fell to Clemson by only a two-point margin in 2018, Clemson’s smallest margin of victory during its 15-0 campaign. Like a season ago in College Station, Texas, when the teams played in front of 104,794 people (the largest crowd ever to witness a Clemson football game in person), Clemson officials and fans anticipate an electric atmosphere at Death Valley for a 3:30 p.m. contest between the Tigers and the Aggies.
The third of Clemson’s opening trio of games features the Tigers’ road debut in prime time when the team travels to face Syracuse at the site of Clemson’s last regular season loss in 2017. The game will be Syracuse’s second time hosting ABC’s Saturday Night Football, and Syracuse officials have made a concerted effort to boost the game’s atmosphere, publicly soliciting ESPN’s College GameDay and moving the school’s annual homecoming up two weeks to coincide with the game.
Clemson’s journey in those three games and beyond will be shepherded in part by a cast of familiar faces, particularly on offense, where only three starters from 2018 were lost to graduation. In addition to a veteran offensive line that features four seniors, the Tigers return 2018 Freshman All- America quarterback Trevor Lawrence, 2018 All-America running back Travis Etienne, 2018 All-ACC wide receiver Tee Higgins and 2018 Freshman All-America wide receiver Justyn Ross.
In fact, between Lawrence, Etienne and Ross, Clemson was one of only three FBS programs to produce a 3,000-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in 2018 and one of only 20 teams to accomplish the feat this decade. Clemson is the first Power Five team this decade to return such a trio the following season.
Lawrence spent the offseason as the subject of acclaim following his superlative performance in the College Football Playoff. But despite becoming the first freshman starting quarterback to win a National Championship since 1985 and helping Clemson win 13 of its 15 games by 20 points or more, Lawrence knows the team’s accomplishments in 2018 have no bearing on its pursuits in 2019.
“I think this whole spring was kind of, ‘That’s great we won last year, but we’re moved on from that now.’ This is a new team,” Lawrence said. “We’ve got to start over. We don’t get to carry any of that over.”
While Lawrence has arguably become the face – and the hair – of college football in 2019, his backfield mate has also staked a claim as one of the sport’s premier figures. While Lawrence was relegated to second-team All-ACC status in 2018, Etienne secured ACC Player of the Year honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award.
In big moments in 2018, Swinney would draw upon the team’s recent history of success and tell his players to simply “be who you are.” While still pursuing avenues to improve, it’s the same approach that Etienne has applied to his own game for 2019.
“Don’t get too high, don’t get too low and continue to do what got me here,” Etienne said. “Keep that poise about myself and just be who I’ve always been.”
In his first two seasons, who he’s always been is one of the most prolific running backs in Clemson’s illustrious history. Etienne’s career yards-per-carry average (7.79) far outpaces any other player in Clemson annals, with no other Tiger with at least 1,000 rushing yards cracking the six-yard mark. Now Clemson’s single-season leader in yards and touchdowns, Etienne sits 1,542 yards shy of Raymond Priester’s school record for career rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns short of James Davis’ program mark for career rushing touchdowns.
For the warm and notably humble product of Jennings, La., it’s almost hard to fathom the place he’s carving for himself in Clemson lore.
“Just being where I’m from, it’s crazy that I could be able to do that and break those records and be a part of history here,” Etienne said.
Though the offense radiates with star power, the defense enters 2019 after leading the country in points allowed per game for the first time in school history. While the outsiders will point to the departure of seven starters including five NFL draft picks, inside the program, coaches have been excited for the opportunities that departures represent for the returning players readyto contribute.
“It’s a group of guys that are intelligent and they know the role they’ve got to play,” Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables said. “And we’ve recruited good people that are all going to grow into those roles.”
During IPTAY Prowl & Growl events throughout the offseason, Swinney likened the 2018 and 2019 Tigers to a cake. He noted that in the spring of 2018, the team was like a cake that was baked, and all Clemson needed to do was ice it, cut it and enjoy it. He mentioned the 2019 squad was unbaked this spring, but that it was clear it had all the ingredients needed for the staff to put it together for Aug. 29 and beyond.
“Last year’s team, they had big goals, but it’s my job to create a daily focus and make sure that our daily commitment is greater than any goal we have,” Swinney said. “That’s what I look for, and if I see that daily commitment, then I can live with whatever result we get. Every team has its own challenges and journey. We’ve got great dreams and aspirations for this team, and it starts with just winning the opener.”