CHARLOTTE — When Dabo Swinney arrived for his first ACC media event in 2008, he heard questions from reporters about the conference’s legitimacy: Why can’t teams win big games, where are the premier non-conference games, etc.
“If you don’t like it,” Swinney told himself, “then change it.”
Clemson has silenced both of those queries in the years since. Swinney’s program used years of strong play and recruiting to ascend to last year’s national championship game, and it is expected to compete for No. 1 again in 2016.
The Tigers play in-state rival South Carolina on an annual basis, but also make sure to schedule heavyweight programs every September.
This year, that team is Auburn.
And while Swinney is proud of the high scheduling standard he has set, he admitted he doesn’t “necessarily like” opening on the Plains.
“There’s a good chance you can get beat,” Swinney said. “There’s a long list of people that have been beat at Auburn.”
That doesn’t seem to rattle Deshaun Watson, the Tigers’ Heisman-hopeful quarterback who dominated Alabama in the national title game this January.
“We’re not gonna be overwhelmed or shocked when we walk into that stadium,” Watson said. “We play in hostile environments all the time.”
Auburn fans were probably none too pleased upon hearing that Watson got plenty of advice from former Heisman winner Cam Newton while working at the NFL quarterback’s 7-on-7 camp this summer.
The two met when Watson was in seventh grade, and are “really close,” according to Watson.
Clemson is already favored by more than a touchdown, and Newton’s tutelage will likely only make things worse for his former team.
“He just give me good advice pretty much off the field saying to be true to who I am, listen to the coaching staff, buy into the process, don’t get yourself distracted with the outside things, just focus on the main things,” Watson said.
At least Newton will still be rooting for Auburn on Sept. 3. Right?
“Yeah, who knows,” Watson said. “Why not go for your own university?”
Besides the home crowd, Auburn appears to have another advantage in the opener: Mystery.
Earlier this summer, Swinney said “we don’t know much about them, offensively,” and Watson echoed that statement on the other side of the ball.
The quarterback said his Tigers have not been watching much film on the Auburn defense from last season because former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has moved on. Instead, they’ve been studying last year’s LSU defense to get an idea of what new Auburn coordinator Kevin Steele brings to the table.
“It’s a lot of unknowns going into the first week,” Watson said. “You’ve just gotta prepare and adjust on the fly.”
Watson won’t have many distractions in the classroom this fall. He signed up for 17 credit hours of summer classes to put him within five hours of graduating.
Friday, Swinney polled the dozens of reporters surrounding his table.
“How many of us here were five hours short of graduating in two-and-a-half years?” Swinney said. “That’s what I thought.”
He called Watson’s work in the classroom “incredible” and “insane,” and that ethic extends to the weight room, where Watson — finally healthy in the offseason after dealing with preseason injuries as a freshman and sophomore — jumped from 202 pounds to 218.
When asked about on-field comparisons to Newton, he called them “cool,” but said he wants to establish his own “brand” and become a servant leader in the community as well as a “good guy” on the field who respects the game and “understands that the game of football has been there longer than he has.”
Swinney says Watson is “a great human being that just happens to be a football player.”
Make that a football player who has helped Swinney build Clemson into the national power he envisioned when he took over in 2008.
“We’ve been everyone’s target since Coach Swinney’s been there,” Watson said. “We haven’t lost the games that we needed to win. We get everyone’s best shot, regardless of how good we are that year or not. Everyone wants to play against Clemson.”