CLEMSON — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is a man of many aphorisms. One of his favorites? “Leave no doubt.”
The idea is often evoked to describe the mindset with which Swinney wants his players to approach things. But on Tuesday, in referencing this Saturday’s game at Syracuse, where Clemson was upset by the Orange two seasons ago, Swinney employed the phrase in a different context.
“We didn’t leave any doubt when we went up there two years ago,” Swinney said, shaking his head. “There was no doubt. They beat our butt.”
Indeed, then-No. 2 Clemson went into the Carrier Dome on Oct. 13, 2017, with a 6-0 record and left with a shocking defeat to the Orange, but not before Swinney embraced Syracuse coach Dino Babers and offered some complimentary words to Babers’ team in the home locker room.
Clemson defeated Syracuse, 27-23, last season at Death Valley, but this weekend it’ll have the opportunity to atone for what happened two seasons ago on the Orange’s home turf.
The Tigers have a young team. Many players weren’t in Syracuse two years ago. Linebacker Chad Smith, a redshirt senior, was there, and he’s hasn’t forgotten what it felt like.
“You’ve got to hate to lose,” he said, “more than you love to win.”
Here are four keys for No. 1 Clemson to leave no doubt in victory against Syracuse this Saturday.
Feed off matchup history
Players and coaches often insist they don’t pay mind to recent history, filing away losses, moving robotically on to future challenges.
There’s something to be said about competing against oneself, or competing against greatness. But the Syracuse loss is one of the Tigers’ few tangible examples of defeat in recent memory. They’d be smart to relive the loss, especially for a young team with little experience with losing.
Coaches should instruct veterans to call back to that evening. Maybe play a highlight — or lowlight — tape of the game. Whatever it is, Clemson should find a way to incorporate what happened the last time this program stepped inside the Carrier Dome into its preparation for Saturday.
It could help Clemson avoid complacency in what is looking like a season in which it won’t be seriously challenged until December.
Strong quarterback play
Swinney was blunt this week when asked to assess what Syracuse had done the previous two seasons to shake his team:
“(The Orange) knocked our quarterback out the past two games,” said.
Two seasons ago, Tigers QB Kelly Bryant left the game late in the first half after suffering a concussion, leaving backup Zerrick Cooper to pick up the pieces in Clemson’s eventual loss. Last season, days after Bryant had left the team, QB Trevor Lawrence was forced out late in the second quarter, having suffered a neck injury.
To be fair, Syracuse was leading Clemson at the time of both injuries. But the Tigers would argue that things would have gone smoother the rest of the way in both contests had their starting signal callers been healthy.
Last season, backup quarterback Chase Brice filled in for Lawrence and steered the Tigers to victory.
Swinney has expressed confidence in Brice, but Clemson would rather Lawrence stay healthy for four quarters Saturday and play the way he did last week against Texas A&M, when he went 24 for 35 for 268 yards and one touchdown against one interception.
Make Tommy DeVito uncomfortable
On the other side, Clemson’s defensive line should look to make Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito as uncomfortable as possible. Though the Orange fell to Maryland, 63-20, on the road last week, DeVito played well.
After a bumpy Week 1 performance in a win over Liberty, DeVito threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns against the Terrapins. When given time and space, DeVito proved he can be dangerous.
“He’s got a big arm, throws the ball on time,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said of DeVito. “He’s mobile; he can run around too.”
Last week, Venables was complimentary of Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond, too. Then the Tigers held Mond to 97 passing yards through three quarters. Mond finished with 236 yards through the air, but not before the Clemson defense recorded two sacks, an interception, six pass breakups and four quarterback hits.
So long as the Tigers turn in a similar performance against DeVito, they should be fine.
Embrace the villain role
Geographical and ideological distance aside, Swinney and Clemson are starting to resemble a professional baseball team up north: The New York Yankees.
The Yankees have won 27 World Series titles and have long been the most reviled team in professional sports. Clemson isn’t quite there yet — Alabama and Nick Saban, winners of four national championships this decade, are college football’s biggest villains — but with each passing week, the Tigers occupy more and more rarefied air.
Many expect Clemson to compete for its second straight national title, which would be the program’s third in four seasons.
Syracuse is probably Clemson’s most formidable opponent in the ACC Atlantic Division, but the Orange are several tiers lower than the Tigers.
People don’t like winners. It’s lonely at the top, but it’s high time for Clemson to embrace the villain role. It’s a price of success.
Clemson 42, Syracuse 14