COLUMBIA, S.C. – Clemson's Dabo Swinney said if he were a casual college football fan, he'd pick No. 4 Florida State to beat the 10th-ranked Tigers, too.
Swinney said Tuesday there are few teams in the nation, other than maybe No. 1 Alabama or No. 2 LSU, who'd be favored to beat the Seminoles on their home turf this season.
The Tigers enter their first Atlantic Coast Conference game as a two-touchdown underdog to Florida State (3-0, 1-0 ACC). Swinney doesn't see it as a lack of respect, but a common-sense assessment of the season.
Swinney said the defending ACC champions aren't that great a team yet despite their second straight 3-0 start. That doesn't mean Swinney is selling his team short.
"I'm not on the outside, I'm on the inside and I like where I'm at," he said.
At least offensively. The Tigers high-flying attack has picked up where it left off a season ago when it set school bests with 6,171 yards and 470 points. Clemson came 2 yards shy last week against Furman of starting the season with three games of at least 500 yards of offense.
Plus, the Tigers got back All-American receiver Sammy Watkins from a two-game suspension. Watkins responded with 58-yard touchdown run, the first rushing score of his career.
"It's a longer run. You'll be tired, but it's all right," Watkins said, laughing.
The questions with the Tigers are the same as they were a year ago — on defense.
The team's given up 350 or more yards in each game this season and is ranked 84th nationally against the run. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables' early frustration came through last Saturday when he said Florida State might "break the scoreboard" if the Tigers didn't improve.
Clemson's defensive players have gotten the message. Whether they can improve enough by Saturday night is the big question.
"I guess you could say we've made" some progress, Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony said. "We just have to play together and put this thing together and play good defense."
Swinney said Clemson's had plenty of experience surpassing expectations. There were few who gave the Tigers a chance early last season during a stretch of three straight games against 2010 national champion Auburn, ACC Atlantic Division champion Florida State and ACC champion Virginia Tech. Clemson pulled off three straight wins to fuel an 8-0 start and gain their first ACC title in 20 years.
"Listen, the last three years we've never been picked to win the division let alone the conference, and we have won it two out of three years," Swinney said. "So our guys are confident. They know who they are. We don't worry about what other people think."
Although, it was obvious some Clemson players didn't like almost everyone outside campus thinking they didn't have a chance.
"No one outside of this building is going to pick us to win so that's great," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "We've been in ballgames before where no one picks us to win."
Offensive lineman Brandon Thomas said he was "shocked" when learned by how much Florida State was favored. "The public puts them on a pedestal," he said of the Seminoles.
This is the first matchup of top 10 teams in the ACC since 2007 when No. 2 Boston College defeated eighth-ranked Virginia Tech, 14-10. Clemson and Florida State last faced off as top-10 opponents in 2000 when the fourth-ranked Seminoles routed No. 10 Clemson 54-7, which was the second father-son meeting between FSU's Bobby Bowden and the Tigers' Tommy Bowden.
Swinney understands the importance of this weekend's contest, but does not want either victory or defeat at Doak Campbell Stadium to overwhelm the rest of the season.
"You can't make this game bigger than what it is because we have to go to Boston College next week," he said. "It's a long season, guys."
One, though, that would get a significant boost with a win at Florida State. Watkins said the Tigers will do what they've done before, ignore outside opinions and concentrate on success.
"A lot of people talk bad about Clemson," Watkins said. "We just always seem to show everyone they are wrong about us, like last year."