Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney broke every rule in big-game coaching this week when took a few swipes at his opponent in advance of a televised, prime-time event.
Worse, that team is ranked higher in the polls than Clemson and was once coached by Lou Holtz, the poor-mouthing maestro who pronounced every upcoming opponent the equal of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
Swinney has always been a different cat, but we’re not sure what he’s up to.
Clemson hosts Notre Dame on Saturday night in a game with early playoff implications. The schools have only met twice, and not since the 1970s.
Swinney was asked whether the pope was in the country to advance the South Bend cause. “It’s been forever since we’ve played Notre Dame,” he said, “and they’ve done fired everybody up and took him all around the country.”
Question: “Did the pope try to get tickets?”
“I couldn’t get Jesus tickets,” Swinney said.
Swinney has a reputation for freewheeling and nothing he said was particularly sinister. Reporters who chide coaches for never saying anything interesting should not overact when a coach fills up their notebooks.
Swinney presumably was trying to keep things loose at Clemson, a program that has a history of tightening under pressure. Last season, the Tigers got to play Atlantic Coast Conference rival Florida State when the Seminoles were without star quarterback Jameis Winston, who was suspended. Even then, Clemson botched it.
The worst thing Swinney did was take an unwarranted jab at Notre Dame’s 12-game schedule.
“I think they should have to play 13 games,” he said. “I mean, to me, not just them, same as the Big 12, I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s equitable.”
Swinney picked the wrong fight, against the wrong program.
He is correct in saying college football needs to get on the same page. The Big 12 is the only Power Five conference that doesn’t play a championship game. The Southeastern Conference has 14 teams but plays only an eight-game league schedule, while the Pac-12 has 12 teams and plays nine conference games.
Swinney didn’t mention that Alabama, in 2011, wasn’t required to play 13 games to reach the national title game, which it won. The Crimson Tide made the championship game without even winning the SEC West.
You can poke Notre Dame for being arrogantly independent, having its own television network deal and, for years, getting special privileges in the Bowl Championship Series just for being Notre Dame.
But you can’t make the Irish join a conference or criticize its yearly game plan.
Notre Dame is a special-circumstances case and has the best of everything now, a half-foot-in deal in which it plays five games a season against ACC teams but maintains its football independence.
The Irish like this arrangement not because they’re trying to play dodge ball. Being independent allows the program to maintain freedom while playing an ambitious national schedule that always includes USC, Stanford and Navy.
Not playing a 13th game, or a conference title game, is a factor that can now be mitigated by the College Football Playoff selection committee. The lack of a conference title game likely cost the Big 12 a spot in the four-team playoff last season.
With Notre Dame, strength of schedule probably will never be an issue. Notre Dame, UCLA and USC remain the only Football Bowl Subdivision schools to never play a lower-level opponent.
Clemson has played at least one every year since 2007. In 2008, the Tigers played two: The Citadel and South Carolina State. In 2010, Clemson took on a religious-affiliated school, but it wasn’t Notre Dame or even Brigham Young. Clemson played Presbyterian.
It is interesting that Swinney would criticize only weeks after Clemson mopped up against Wofford on the same day Notre Dame mopped up on Texas.
Why should Notre Dame have to get on board when schools such as Clemson routinely play games against inferior competition?
In years when Notre Dame’s 12-game schedule turns out to be less than stellar, here’s betting it can always be fairly measured against any Clemson menu that includes South Carolina State.
“I ain’t got no agenda,” Swinney said, backtracking from the dust devil he kicked up. “I don’t care what they do. To each his own. . . . I’m worried about Clemson.”
Given his comments this week, and Clemson’s big-moment history, he should be.