2019 ACC Media Days notebook: Dabo Swinney starting to sound like Nick Saban, other takeaways
Clemson, Florida State and Syracuse were among the teams in the spotlight on Wednesday
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With two national championships in the last three years, Clemson has become not only the class of the ACC but a challenger to the title of best program in college football. While Dabo Swinney did crack some jokes and smiles during his path through the many stops on the media car wash through the ACC Football Kickoff, most of his commentary was delivered with a more measured tone.
He spoke of the challenge facing Clemson to restart every season, how he's used the same preseason schedule since 2009 and responded to questions with long answers that occasionally veered into corners of personal or college football history. We nearly hit bingo with the catchphrases after "process," "the main thing is the main thing," and a long explanation of how success at Clemson starts with "relationships."
It served as yet another interesting signifier of a potential changing in the guard at the top, because while Nick Saban was assigning some blame for Alabama's title game loss in Hoover at the SEC Media Days we had Swinney causing no controversy at all and calmly riding the wave of championship success. We had Swinney sounding an awful lot like Nick Saban after one of his national championships.
That's not to say that Clemson's players weren't engaging in some of the back and forth between these two great programs. While Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses was in Hoover saying that Clemson wasn't as tough of an opponent as Georgia, Clemson offensive lineman fired back that Alabama was an easier opponent than the Tigers' Cotton Bowl opponent, Notre Dame.
Clemson wasn't totally drama-free heading into the event as there was some hand-wringing among the ACC media when it was announced that John Simpson and Tanner Muse would be Clemson's player representatives at the event. Simpson and Muse could both end up being preseason All-ACC selections, but neither one carries the star power of Trevor Lawrence.
Simpson and Clemson turned the tables on the ACC media, bringing out a blonde wig for what the Tigers called a "Trevor Lawrence stunt double."
Swinney's elevated status in the sport has afforded him the comfort to lay back and let the entertainment portions of these events play out without his involvement. Years ago, the Clemson coach would arrive at this event ready to defend his belief that the Tigers could win championships and compete at the highest level. Now that the evidence has been displayed on the field, Swinney doesn't have to raise his voice for attention or respect. The Clemson contingent was followed diligently by up to three cameras all-access style, and the scrum around his spot in the breakout room was so crowded that one savvy media member opted to take up the use of a ladder.
One of the many reasons that Alabama's Clemson commentary has spiked interest here in Charlotte is that virtually no one in attendance seems to question the Tigers' supremacy in the ACC. It's almost Alabama-like, and fitting that this dominant status was highlighted as the Tide were explaining away the 44-16 result that made us all question the pecking order at the top of college football.
More highlights from Wednesday's festivities with the Atlantic Division schools:
Taggart: 2018 struggles are "part of our history". Florida State coach Willie Taggart had two ways of addressing the one of the worst seasons in modern program history, a 5-7 record that snapped a 36-year streak of postseason appearances.
First there was admitting the mistakes, particularly on offense, and noting where that unit fell short in the effort to transition from a pro-style offense to Taggart's Gulf Coast Offense. Falling short on offense had Taggart looking to make some changes, and he did so by hiring Kendal Briles as the team's new offensive coordinator. Admit mistakes, make changes and look for better results.
But at the same time, Taggart was clear that while 2018 was significant it was not what would define this year's team.
"[The 2018 season] is behind us," Taggart said. "That's part of our history. We're going to keep it there, and continue to focus on '19."
In the months since the conclusion of the season, a clearer picture of the challenges that Taggart faced in his first year at Florida State has emerged. Near the end of the Jimbo Fisher era, the lines of communication and commitment behind the scenes began to break down. There had to be some aspect of that that Taggart was aware of when he accepted the job, but there was no way he could have known the extent of the work needed to repair that damage and reset those relationships to assist in future success.
"I think year two, myself, I'm a lot more confident in our football team, our coaches, administration, everything. You know a lot more. You go through year one and it's a learning experience throughout the whole thing. Now going into year two, you're familiar with everything."
Taggart is not the type of coach or leader who will spend a time like this pointing fingers, but his inclusion of the administration in that confidence comment suggests that there were indeed difficulties navigating the off-field aspects of running the Florida State football program. Tallahassee is a unique place that has tied much its university identity to its football team, creating high demands for the coach and tricky power dynamics to negotiate when issues arise. Taggart says he's more confident now, but that will be tested again and again as this team, still building towards reclaiming its spot at the top of the ACC, faces adversity both on and off the field.
Syracuse's greatest strength might not be its exhilarating offense. The pace of Dino Babers' offense and the explosiveness that it showed with Eric Dungey has laid a foundation for Syracuse as a team that leads with ability to light up the scoreboard. A closer investigation shows that the real key to the Orange winning 10 games for the first time since 2001 was on the other side of the ball. Syracuse's defense capitalized on third and long opportunities with a tenacious pass rush and was one of the best red zone defenses in the ACC.
Babers has high expectations for both the defense and special teams this year.
"I really think the strength of our football team is our defense this year. I think we have an outstanding defense," Babers said. "I think the second strength of our football team is our special teams. Our field-goal kicker [Andre Szmyt] is a Lou Groza Award winner as a freshman. Our punter [Sterling Hofrichter] is an NFL punter. Write it down, he will kick in the National Football League. That's how good he is."
"When you have good defense and you have good special teams, good things should happen."
And if you're wondering whether or not Babers had thoughts on Game of Thrones -- an annual tradition now for the Syracuse coach -- the answer is absolutely. He giddily gave his review to WRAL's Lauren Brownlow pointing out a particular fondness for the Kingdom of the North
Louisville needed a little loving after disaster season in 2018. Scott Satterfield inherited a roster that had sustained some damage from a disastrous final year with Bobby Petrino. The players talked about the 2018 season like a traumatic event, one that provided a bonding experience for everyone who survived and came out on the other side in tact.
"I think the first impression was that when I first saw these guys, they were obviously very hungry. Had a bad taste in their mouth of what happened last year," Satterfield said. "They want to be good. So they were very welcoming for myself and our staff to coming in. They were like, 'Coach, we're ready to work. What do we need to do?'"
"The first thing we did was to put our arm around them, love them up a little bit and then say, 'Here is the plan, here is what we have to do.'"
Other comparisons between current and former coach included wide receiver Seth Dawkins enjoying a much more simplified offensive playbook from what Petrino had in place and Satterfield being a more "laid back" coach.
"When I first met him, he's real laid back, laid-back guy. I didn't know how I really felt about that. Every coach I've ever had has been an up-in-your-face type of guy," linebacker Dorian Ethridge said before revealing a smile and motioning back in Satterfield's direction. "He's laid back until you, like, start messing up, then definitely he'll gladly intervene."
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