CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The biggest obstacle standing between Clemson and a fifth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship may be an early season Sept. 14 matchup at Syracuse.
Clemson has largely breezed through the ACC schedule over the last four seasons, going 34-2 in conference play while winning four consecutive conference titles and two national championships. The Tigers have defeated conference opponents by an average of 22 points during that four-year span, and few have been able to compete with them.
That is, except the Orange.
Coach Dino Babers' squad stunned No. 2 Clemson in 2017, 27-24 at home. Last year the Orange gave Clemson another big scare at Death Valley before falling 27-23 after a touchdown run by Travis Etienne with 41 seconds left.
This year the game moves back to Syracuse, where the Orange didn't lose in 2018.
"Dino has created the belief in his team that they can win," Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said Wednesday at ACC Media Days. "And I don't see them going away anytime soon."
Babers said beating Clemson two years ago proved to his players they're capable of beating anyone.
"You've seen the mountaintop, OK? You've seen what it looks like," Babers said. "You know how difficult it is. I think that gives us a little bit of an edge that we know we can. That doesn't mean you will. I mean, the last time that those young men at Clemson lost, the year was 2017. It's 2019 now."
Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito said the Orange view Clemson as a "faceless opponent."
"We play them like anybody else," DeVito said. "You can't just make them special because they are Clemson and they have that name. It's the same way you approach a lesser opponent."
Swinney knows the Tigers will be heavy favorites to repeat as ACC champions with Etienne, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross returning. He said by now having a so-called target on their chest is "business as usual" given Clemson has won at least 10 games in eight consecutive seasons, including a 15-0 campaign last year.
Swinney said the key is Clemson never looks back on its past success.
"We don't carry anything over," Swinney said. "We redevelop leadership, reinstall our core values. We show up every year with something to improve."
Syracuse won 10 games last season for the first time since 2001.
The Orange figure to be Clemson's toughest test in the Atlantic Division with North Carolina State, Boston College and Wake Forest all facing quarterback questions and Florida State and Louisville in rebuilding mode.
While being in Clemson's division may not appear to be the ideal situation for everyone, Babers embraces the challenge.
"When you go outside the conference and you start playing other teams, I mean, what is there to be fearful of?" Babers said. "When you're in the ACC Atlantic, your big brother is as big as anybody on the street, OK? If you can handle him, you're going to have an opportunity to handle anybody else."
Clemson decided not to send quarterback Trevor Lawrence to media days. The national champs sent a "stunt double" instead: offensive guard John Simpson.
Simpson decided to sport a blonde wig to resemble the popular quarterback's signature long-haired look, knowing everyone would probably rather talk to Lawrence. The Tigers posted a video of Simpson trying on the wig on their football Twitter site.
"I'm kind of glad people don't know my name," Simpson said with a laugh. "I mean, I'm an offensive lineman. You're not supposed to know my name. ... I'm going to have fun with it."
Sure, the 330-pound Simpson doesn't look a whole lot like Lawrence, but he had the hair flip down.
"Yeah, I've got some clout now, I've got a lot of clout," Simpson said. "A lot of people have put me all over social media. I thought it was cool."
For Willie Taggart, who has now completed his first year as Florida State's head coach, last season was an inauspicious beginning.
No one has to tell Taggart about the pressure he faces to turn things around after the Seminoles failed to reach a bowl game for the first time since 1981.
In his first season, the Seminoles finished with a 5-7 record. That included a humbling home loss to eventual national champion Clemson along with lopsided margins in losses to Virginia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Notre Dame and Florida. But Taggart said his perception of the program remains the same, even after last year's stumble.
"I expect Florida State to win and that hadn't changed," Taggart said. "And I expect we'll do those things."
That rough first season has led to at least some questions about Taggart's long-term future at FSU. Taggart was asked what his reaction is when he hears that he might be on the "hot seat."
"I don't see that, and I'm sure nobody will come tell me that," he said. "But I hear it when I talk to you all or you ask that question. That's part of the business. We all know what we were signing up for when we decided to become coaches. That's part of the whole landscape of it, where you talk about guys' jobs and whether they're on the hot seat or not. But you can't focus on that, you've got to stay locked in to what you're doing."
Sports on 07/18/2019
Print Headline: Clemson, Syracuse matchup a big one