CLEMSON — You didnt have to talk to a single Clemson player or coach, or even step foot inside the Tigers football complex to get an idea of just how big the Tigers 2013 season opener is.
If you pulled into Memorial Stadiums parking lot Monday morning, then looked up, you got it.
There they were students, thousands of them, ringing the stadiums exterior. Many had camped out for days to get the choicest seats for Saturdays 8 p.m. showdown between No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson, and now they were picking up their tickets.
And it was only Monday.
ESPN and its College GameDay crew are still days away from rolling into town and cranking the hype meter up to 11. Which leads to a bigger question: How do the Tigers avoid the hype vortex?
As any casual Clemson observer knows, this program has been best over the years when it has been an underdog. Let the hype and confidence build, and you could be asking for trouble. Take 2008, the last time the Tigers began a season in the national top 10. They strolled into the Georgia Dome and were rolled 34-10 by Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, the beginning of the end of Tommy Bowdens 10-plus-year tenure.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wants his team to enjoy the moment.
All that stuff is fun, you can draw energy from it, but it cant be a distraction, Swinney said Tuesday. You have to keep things in the right perspective. When you have a team with good experience like we do we had just 11 seniors last year a lot of guys have been through the battle and got a good foundation, theyve got their feet on the ground.
I dont think theyve gotten swept up in the clutter and noise. Theyre too busy figuring out how theyll beat Georgia. You turn the film on and watch these guys, you better bring your A game right out of the gate.
That said, Swinney embraces this weeks trappings. He understands what a potential spotlight this could be for his program.
I think thats great, he said. All that stuff is great Id much rather have people give a rip about Clemson than not care. I was at Bi-LO (for his weekly radio call-in show) until 10:30 last night signing autographs. People are excited. Its important. They love it.
Theyre spending family time here therell be people rolling in here tomorrow night to smell the campus. Those are great things. Our players arent immune to that. They hear things everywhere they go, with the same thing, people talking to them. You have to lean on experience.
Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd is among those counting down the days. He said Tuesday that Clemson coaches set up a countdown clock in the team weight room, recalling it moving from 200 to 100, then 80, and now four or five, days left, he said.
There are going to be 300,000 people in Clemson, the largest game in Clemson history, he said. Theres so much thrown at you but you have to realize what youre here for.
Boyd and Clemson are focused on scoring however many points it takes to win, if we have to score 10 or 30 or 40 points, he said.
That number will likely trend upward, given the pair of explosive offenses and questionable defenses that will face off. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables believes his defense is more physical, but questions remain about the secondary.
Sophomore Travis Blanks and junior Robert Smith will be starting their first career games at safety, while no clear starters have emerged from the cornerback quartet of senior Darius Robinson and juniors Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters.
Thats potentially troubling news given the presence of preseason All-SEC quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns against 10 interceptions a year ago.
However, Georgias defense looks thin on the surface, too. Only four 2012 starters return linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree were first-round NFL selections.
Junior cornerback Damian Swann is the secondarys only returning starter from 2012, and the unit has been further thinned by suspensions and injuries. Projected starting safety Josh Harvey-Clemons will miss this week because of a suspension connected to a May arrest for marijuana possession.
Ten of Georgias 22 players on the defensive two-deep are freshmen who have never played a snap of college football.
We have to prepare for every situation possible, Boyd said. Anything can be thrown at you. They have a lot of young guys who havent played in a lot of games, but they have great players and great coaches who expect to perform well.
In the end, what might be most important is this: Once the glitter and glamour surrounding pregame fades, who will perform most consistently when it really matters?
Guys have a feeling how quickly stuff goes away, how irrelevant it is, how up and down the game is, Swinney said. We have a formula for success and thats what well keep our eyes on.