The way Clemson dismantled No. 14 Louisville last week — wreaking havoc on reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson with four sacks, piling up 613 total yards, and blowing out a high-powered ACC rival in a 47-21 win — sparked thoughts about just how scary the defending national champions could be this season.
But Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s memory isn’t that short.
It was only a week earlier when the Tigers outlasted No. 13 Auburn in a 14-6 slugfest in which yards were hard to come by and their defense had to impose its will with a staggering 11 sacks.
So now that there’s growing buzz about whether this Clemson team could be better than the one that went 14-1 and toppled mighty Alabama on the way to its first national title since 1981, Swinney is the first one to pump the brakes.
“Oh, shoot, we’ve played three games,” Swinney said. “And I would answer that question just like I would answer last year after three games. Everybody wanted to know what was wrong with our team and we’re not a good team.
“My answer then is the same it is now: We’ve played three games, and we’re 3-0, and that’s where we want to be. We’ve got a long way to go.
“Same thing for this team. Three games don’t make a season. We’re happy where we are, but we’ve got a long way. We’ve got a lot of improving to do.”
But through three weeks, the Tigers have answered many of the questions that came as soon as they brought the championship back to South Carolina.
■ How do you replace a quarterback like two-time Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson, who left Clemson with the second-most yards and touchdowns in school history?
With dynamic junior quarterback Kelly Bryant, who in three games has thrown for 733 yards, completed 68.8 percent of his passes, and thrown for two touchdowns and run for five more, assuring that the keys to the offense are in safe hands.
“You can tell that he totally understands the offense,” said Boston College coach Steve Addazio. “He has great command of the offense. He’s an outstanding runner, and he throws the ball extremely well. I think it’s a very talented player.”
■ How do you fill the void left by Wayne Gallman, the fifth-ranked rusher in school history?
With the duo of redshirt junior C.J. Fuller, who found the end zone twice in his debut as a starter against Kent State, and freshman Travis Etienne, who has turned just 14 carries into 179 yards and two scores.
■ How do you restock a defense that had seven players taken in the NFL draft in April?
By building around a menacing defensive line that was critical in the Fiesta Bowl win last season. All-America tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins were already the backbone of the line, along with end Clelin Ferrell. But in his first year as a starter, end Austin Bryant put himself on the map by tying the school record for sacks with four against Auburn.
Put it all together, and you get the only team in the country that already has knocked off two Top 25 opponents.
The Tigers have another top-25 test next week against Virginia Tech, and it would be easy to overlook a BC team that’s coming off back-to-back lopsided losses at home.
But Swinney said he doesn’t buy into the idea of a trap game.
“I believe this is the biggest game of the year, and that’s the mind-set,” he said. “I understand that that happens in athletics if you don’t have the right culture, you don’t have the right mind-set.
“Boston College can come in here and beat us, and if they beat us, it’s because they beat us, not because we’re looking ahead. It’s because we didn’t play well.
“There’s a sense of urgency every single day, and you have to have a great appreciation for winning and what it takes. You’ve got to be willing to buy into that, week in and week out.
“I think that mind-set has allowed us to be very consistent, and you know, we’ve lost games, but I don’t . . . it’s not because we were looking ahead. It means we either didn’t play well or that team just whooped our butt. Simple as that.”
The Tigers have won six straight against the Eagles. BC hasn’t won in Death Valley since 2007. The Eagles go in knowing that a team that’s already frightening is only thinking about getting better.
“We have a long way to go,” Swinney said. “September is not the time to be talking about, you know, if we’re . . . who we are compared to past teams and so forth.”
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Swinney announced that junior kicker Greg Huegel will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL on the last play of Wednesday’s practice. Junior Alex Spence will handle the Tigers’ kicking duties Saturday.Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.