Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has his head held high and believes his Tigers should, too, despite their 1-2 start.
Swinney said Clemson played well and with purpose in a 23-17 overtime loss at No. 1 Florida State last Saturday. Swinney was as frustrated as anyone with the Tigers' head-scratching mistakes, but thinks there's a bigger picture to see about where the team is headed this season.
"All I can tell you is, how we played is incredible and the film validates it," Swinney said Tuesday. "I mean, we played a great football game."
So what of the two missed field goals, the high snap over quarterback Deshaun Watson's head just inches from the FSU goal line, the slip of cornerback Mackensie Alexander that led to Rashad Greene's 74-yard TD catch or the fourth-quarter fumble from C.J. Davidson with Clemson driving for the go-ahead score — any of which had they not happened might've lifted the Tigers to victory?
"It's unfortunate because if you just change one of four or five things, we're having a different conversion," he said. "Because of that, I don't think we can lose sight of that as a coaching staff. I know it's a bottom-line business and ultimately you would rather win and play bad and correct mistakes from that, but I think we have to understand that our guys played really well."
Swinney's challenge is get the Tigers (1-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) playing with similar effort when they face North Carolina (2-1, 0-0) on Saturday night, the first of three straight home games he hopes bring momentum.
The contest also ushers in Watson's time as starting quarterback. The five-star freshman passer from Gainesville, Georgia was the buzz around campus since he enrolled in January and that anticipation to see him play more has only increased with what he showed so far this year.
Watson had thrown for four of Clemson's five TDs its first two games. But senior starter Cole Stoudt got pulled after three series down 3-0 to Florida State and it became Watson's game to win.
He nearly pulled it off. The 6-foot-2 Watson led a pair of touchdown drives and finished 19 of 28 for 266 yards, earning ACC rookie of the week honors and the start against the Tar Heels.
"Of course, it's going to be exciting, my first game starting in front of all the Clemson fans," Watson said. "A lot of nerves, but I'll be ready for it."
When asked why Watson's starting, Swinney was blunt: "Did you watch the game Saturday? That's why."
Stoudt, the son of former NFL passer Cliff Stoudt, had backed up record-setting passer Tajh Boyd the past three years and had won the job after spring and fall camps. But Swinney said Watson is the most talented newcomer he's ever had since taking over the Tigers in 2008, a group that included Buffalo Bills' first-round receiver Sammy Watkins who became an All-American his freshman year.
What sets Watson apart, Swinney said, is his poise, intelligence and leadership at handling the most critical position on the field.
"He's special," the coach said. "I'm sure there are going to come times he'll look like a freshmen, but so far he has not."
Swinney said that Stoudt, as Watson had done the first three games, would see action against North Carolina. While Stoudt is disappointed, Swinney said the senior has handled things well and continued leading the team and supporting Watson.
"Cole's a man's man," Swinney said. "He's as class as they come."
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora knows the Tar Heels, who gave up a record 70 points in losing to No. 23 East Carolina last week, will have their hands full no matter who plays quarterback for Clemson and offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
"I don't think he's going to sit there and think, 'We have to limit what we're doing because of Deshaun Watson,'" Fedora said.
Swinney said the Tigers must worry about themselves and not get complacent with coming close. "We're 0-2 versus Clemson, that's the bottom line. We have to control the things that we can control," he said.