Will's Last Word: The Revenge Tour No One Saw Coming

Straight Up With Sturg
September 09, 2019 - 10:54 am

Clemson fans will not be shy to tell you there’s “something special up there in the hills”, but nothing can be as unique as what happened at Memorial Stadium during the last two weeks.

I’ve claimed that Dabo Swinney is most importantly three things: Master Marketer, Master Recruiting Closer and Master Motivator. The last of these is the muscle Swinney has flexed not only during the Tigers’ first two tilts, but all offseason. 

While Death Valley celebrated the coronation of Clemson’s third championship in January, I asked Swinney how this team would avoid its greatest opponent not personified by personnel grouping: complacency. “We’ve been doing this a long time, other people create that stuff,” the head coach said, “Our guys are very focused on what we do on a daily basis, it’s back to work, business as usual.”

While the business of winning hasn’t changed for Clemson, the nature of its success has a different tinge. Whether it’s intentional, or otherwise, Swinney has created the kind of revenge-tour mentality seen only recently by the Deflategate-inflicted New England Patriots. Tom Brady’s four-game suspension two years ago inflated and catalyzed a run that culminated the team’s fifth Super Bowl title, which included a “forget you” to the doubters, including NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Usually coaches don’t want players to read their press clippings, or search for things the media has said about them. Swinney has used many of the negative comments about his team as fuel for the fire inside his group, including many people’s beliefs that the Tigers “escaped” College Station fortunate to beat Texas A&M in 2018.

“We felt like we left a little doubt last year,” said Swinney. 

Clemson left no doubt in the latest vintage, as they controlled this year’s contest from the second quarter forward, a 24-10 shutdown of the Aggies. Kellen Mond, who nearly led his team on a comeback last September with more than 450 yards of total offense, found himself limited by the salty Tigers defense to less than half his output from a year ago. Trevor Lawrence looked more the part against the Aggies after his pedestrian play in the opener, finding Justyn Ross seven times for 94 yards and a score. Ross, who logged just one snap in College Station last year, instead became Lawrence’s most sought after pass-catcher on Saturday, earning 10 more targets than any other receiver.

It wasn’t a beatdown like the opening game against Georgia Tech, but the victory over Texas A&M had more stealth-like approach, as Clemson used the cunning nature of a bomb-defuser to dismantle the opposing Aggies. Swinney in his postgame comments also showed a rare look ahead to the next task, sharing that the Tigers have unfinished business in Central New York.

Clemson’s last regular season defeat came at the hands of the Tigers’ next opponent, the Syracuse Orange. The “Peddlers of the Paw” have rattled off 21 consecutive victories in non-playoff games since then, and Swinney’s mention of the game hinted that the Orange won’t sneak up on Clemson like their last trip to the Empire State. While an injury to a starting quarterback has muddied the waters of the last two contests with Syracuse, the sentiments of Swinney and the echoes from other staff members and players portray the fact that the Orange have the full attention of the Tigers.

“Great teams get better, and great teams win on the road,” Swinney commented after Saturday’s win over the Aggies. “And we get the opportunity to do both next week.”

While the Tigers have received near universal praise for their historic 15-0 season, it’s the jabs that Swinney and Co. have harnessed and used to provide an unlikely revenge tour, after a year where Clemson answered all comers. The praise apparently was not enough to this group after cementing its legacy as the first unblemished team in the Playoff Era.

Because this journey, filled with vengeance, might end with more hardware in those hills.

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