Final Word: Swinney and Fedora break down ACC Championship

by - Staff Writer -
Swinney, ACC Commissioner John Swofford, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and Fedora
Swinney, ACC Commissioner John Swofford, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and Fedora

CHARLOTTE, NC – Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t expect Saturday night’s ACC Championship to be a low-scoring affair.

Clemson and North Carolina play at 8:14 p.m. in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium in a game that features two of the nation’s best offenses, and Swinney was asked if he expected the game to be a 14-10 final, and he laughed and said no.

“I'd be shocked. I'd be pretty shocked. You've got the two top-scoring offenses in the league, two of the best in the country, and two teams that really put a lot of pressure on defenses in every regard because both teams can run the ball,” Swinney said. “Both teams are committed to running the ball. Both teams can throw the ball down the field, got skill all over, got two great quarterbacks. So yeah, 14-10 would surprise me, but anything can happen. That's for sure.”

Swinney does look at it as a quarterfinal game as the Tigers need a win in order to qualify for the College Football Playoff.

“Well, I mean, we don't control any of that stuff, but it is what it is. Every week has been a playoff game. Every week -- when you get into November and if you're in the hunt, it's a playoff every single Saturday,” he said. “I mean, it really is, because at the end of the day, that's what it's going to come down to. Our schedule allows us to compete to be the best in the country, and if you can win, then you've got a chance to keep moving forward, and that's what we've been able to do. It's been a fun season, it's been a challenge every single week, and we've tried to make every week the biggest game of the year. Even though some of y'all want the next game to be the biggest game of the year, we've just refused to buy into that. We've made it everything about that game, because it is the biggest game of the year, because if you lose it, then it completely changes your opportunities.

“So we've just looked at it that way all year long. We've played 48 quarters, and now we're down to four, and we're going to have to play four great quarters. We don't control what other people do and all that type of stuff. All we know is that we control our destiny right now, and let's focus on just playing well, and we can live with whatever result we get.”

Clemson is led by standout sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, and Swinney said Watson is ahead of where Tajh Boyd was when Clemson played here for the ACC Championship against Virginia Tech in 2011.

“Well, I think Tajh was a redshirt sophomore. Deshaun is a true sophomore,” he said. “I think that Deshaun is just -- he's just further along than where Tajh was at this stage. Tajh was kind of starting to come into his own a little bit. Didn't have quite the foundation that Deshaun had when he showed up at Clemson. But both great competitors, both great ambassadors for our program, and the reason we were here in '11, one big reason was No. 10, and there's no question a big reason why we're here this year is our quarterback. Most championship teams, they've got a great quarterback, and both of those guys certainly were that.”

Watson has improved as a leader since last season.

“Well, last year he was just trying to assert himself and kind of earn his spurs, if you will, trying to -- he hadn't played, and so now you've got to go prove it,” Swinney said. “So the biggest thing is he's the guy. You know, this year he's really asserted himself as the leader of our team. He's really taken on that role. He's just done an incredible job, but just the experience, the experience that he got last year from the success that he had, he's bigger, stronger than he's ever been, and as a result, more confident than he was this time last year. Not that he was lacking confidence, but when you're doing something for the first time, it's always different the next time around, so he's just able to draw on all this experience that he had last year, and then just another off-season of developing mentally and physically. Very, very smart player, very sharp from a football IQ standpoint. But that's the biggest thing.”

Clemson’s ticket sales for the game have been strong, but Swinney said he doesn’t expect Clemson to have any kind of home field advantage unless they play well.

“I think that the game is played between the lines, and they'll have a great crowd. We'll have a great crowd. But you've got to play well for that crowd to be an advantage,” Swinney said. “Our focus has to be on not who's in the stands and all that but how we play, and getting prepared to play our best four quarters of the season. But I know we'll have an excellent crowd. There's no question that a couple hours -- we've got people drive to Clemson, they drive seven, eight, nine hours, watch a ballgame and then drive right back, so I know they'll come a couple, and we're probably closer to a lot of them being up here. But this is a great place, and North Carolina will have a great turnout, but at the end of the day, it's all about how we play in the game.”


Personnel update

“Maverick (Morris) will start at right guard, he's done a nice job for us. (Tyrone) Crowder will be ready to go, too Both of those guys will play a good bit, I'm sure. (Ammon) Lakip is going to kick extra points, and Ray-Ray is much better this week. I think he's more -- he's closer to 100 percent, and you know, he's mad that he's got to wear that brace, but that's just what he's got to do right now. But hopefully when we get back going for bowl practice, he can come out of that brace into a little different type of deal. But he's doing well. He's doing well. We're full strength.”

On whether the ACC has to prove something to the national media

“I think we've got to prove everything. We've got to earn everything we get, and that's just the way it is. That's okay. That's fine. I wouldn't want it any other way. You know, we just put our best foot forward. This isn't the only good year we've had. We've been very successful for many years now, and I think seven years ago when I got this job, the message to our team was if we're going to -- we can't worry about the ACC. We need to worry about Clemson, and the way we help the ACC is for Clemson to be great, and the only way we can change some of the perceptions that some of y'all may have about Clemson or whatever is you've got to play people, number one, and you've got to win your share of those games. You know, we've just slowly kind of gone through that process. This is our seventh year, and I mean, you can look -- five years ago there was a whole different rhetoric out there, and you couldn't really -- you really didn't have much -- you just keep your mouth shut and go to work. But now seven years into this it's a very different deal. Sometimes people don't want to look at the facts, but this league is 7-1 the last two years against the SEC. You look at the outside-the-conference games that our league has won, it's factual. I mean, it's just -- some people don't want to look at that, but it's factual. Georgia Tech, Mississippi State in the bowl game last year. We've played LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Auburn, Georgia, I mean, you go on and on, and we've won.

“But it seems like with the ACC there's always, well, there's an excuse or, well, they did this or did that. But you just keep going, and now you look at what we've been able to do, again, three top-10 teams, I think us and the Big Ten. You don't luck up and do that. I mean, you earn yourself there, and the SEC has been -- is a great conference and has been an incredible conference, but this league -- I'm not saying we're the best league out there. That's not my point. I think this league top to bottom is as strong as anybody, and people will argue that, and I mean, I'm a part of it. I know great players and great coaches, and you look at the NFL Draft picks, we're first or second on every chart NFL Draft picks.

“I think the best coaches in the world or best league in the world is the NFL and they're coming to the ACC to get more players, it's us and the SEC by far. You look at the national award winners that come out of this conference, you look at the academics that we have in this conference, and that really kind of separates us, to be honest with you. I think this league from top to bottom is just tremendous and well-positioned for the present and well-positioned for the future. So we take great pride in that.

“But the main thing for me that I tell our guys all the time because sometimes you hear some of these schools, yeah, man, we're in this league. Well, what kind of team you got? It ought to be about the program. I mean, you need to have a great program. Let's don't carry a banner because you're in the league but you're 1-11. You know, it's about the program you're in, and we've got a bunch of very strong programs -- I think last year we had, what, 11 bowl teams, commissioner? 12? Two years in a row, 11 bowl teams? I don't know if that's ever happened.

“It's just for whatever reason, we sometimes don't get the credit, but all you can do is go play, and hopefully we can produce a great champion that can go into this playoff and win it, you know, whether it's us or North Carolina, win it, and that would be two out of three years that the ACC has won the National Championship. Maybe if we can win three or four in a row, maybe we'll get some credit, but I don't know, we've got to go earn it. That's all I know. Just keep playing.”

The emergence of Deon Cain

“Well, he's just gradually throughout the year, he's just gotten more confident with the bigger picture of what he's doing, and as he's gotten comfortable with his experience, we've put a little bit more on his plate as he's been able to handle it. He's done a great job. He's stepped up -- Ray-Ray got hurt, and he kind of helped us there for a couple games, Charone not having to have so much pressure on Charone, the combination of those two has been really, really beneficial to what we've done in the passing game. But all those guys have done well.

“But Deon, we felt like by the end of the year he could be pretty doggone special, and he has done just that. So give him a lot of credit, and Jeff has done a great job with him, just bringing him along. Like I said, and not giving him too much too early because I think sometimes you put too much on a guy and then all of a sudden you have a bad experience, and you're just not quite ready, then you lose your confidence. We've just kind of managed him, and now he's at a point where he really is comfortable with everything that we're asking him to do.”

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora

The mood of his team and overcoming the loss of Sam Smiley

“You know, it's really interesting, this group, whether it was Tuesday of this week, Wednesday of this week or Thursday of this week, you could have picked out the first week or the sixth week or the ninth week or the -- these guys have been the same. I mean, they really have. It's not like you think, hey, we're getting ready to play for the championship, so they're out there gunned up running around, going crazy in practice. That doesn't happen. I mean, they have really just kind of stayed at one level all the way through, you know, and it's been fun to watch, actually, because it hasn't been a deal where as a staff we've come off the field and said, wow, today was really rough, had to really push them.

“We haven't had one of those days. They've just kind of been the same way, haven't been too high, haven't been too low. They're going to be the same way in pregame. They're going to be the same way in the locker room, and they're just a different group. It's made it fun. You know, we do, we hate to lose Sam Smiley. Our guys always understand they're one play away from it being over, and we hope they all play like it's their last play. Dominique Green will step up and he's got experience, and the rest of the guys will pull up the boots around him, and we'll play good defense.”

On the poise of Deshaun Watson

“The guy is a great player, a great player. One, because he can beat you with his arm, which he threw, what, six touchdown passes against us last year in his first game as a starter, to if a play breaks down he can break your back with his legs. He can extend plays. And the thing I think that's most impressive about him is his poise. I don't think you ever see him get rattled. No matter what happens in a game he's the same. To be a leader of a team, to be the other guy, that's pretty special. To know the guy is always going to be like this. And they've got a rock that they can rely on, and I think he makes it extremely difficult for a defense.”

On the confidence of his secondary facing Watson

“We know that's an issue because they live by the deep ball. I mean, they really do. You get out there and they can throw it down there, and they're not just throwing it, they're catching it. He's putting the ball on the money. He really throws the deep ball really well.

Our guys understand that challenge. They know what has to happen. But our DBs are pretty confident in themselves. They know these are going to be probably some of the best receivers they've played against and they know this is the best quarterback we've played against. But I don't think they're going to be afraid to go out there and do it. They're confident.”

On the advantage of having played in Bank of America Stadium

“I think so. They're not going to be big-eyed when they walk into the stadium. They've been here. This is actually the third time our team has been in this stadium, not this season but our team. These guys have been here. They've been in that locker room. They know it's special, and especially for these kids from Charlotte. We've got quite a few of them on our football team, and they know it's special, but they're not going to walk around in stadium and looking up in the stadium like wow. They're here to play a game. They know that it's 53-and-three-quarters wide and 100 yards long and all those things, and they're going to go out there and play.”

Clemson’s defense

"Let's start defensively for them. I mean, Shaq Lawson, No. 90, up front, I think he leads the league in sacks, I believe. They are really good up front, very good up front. Their linebackers can all really run. They don't have to be in nickel or dime. They can do it with their linebackers.

“And then their back end is by far the best we've seen. How many teams have a 6'4", 220-pound free safety? I mean, that guy is a freak. So they're really good. They're really good. You watch the third-down tape, and you go home and you can't sleep because they're No. 1 in the nation in allowing third downs converted. They're allowing 24 percent. And then you've got Venables over there who does a tremendous job. I mean, just does, everywhere he's been. So you know they're going to be prepared and ready to go. It'll be a tremendous challenge for us. It really will.”

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