Dabo Swinney doesn't have to travel far to learn the difficulties of playing a rival the week before a conference title game. The Clemson coach can ask South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier about difficult finishes prior to their 7:45 p.m. kickoff today at Williams-Brice Stadium.
At Florida, Spurrier was 1-5-1 in games against rival Florida State before playing in the SEC title game.
"It isn't ideal but it is the way you do it," said Spurrier, who led the Gamecocks to a win against Clemson last year before the SEC title game.
"Back in those days, Florida State was top five in the country every year. It was always a difficult game and they beat us more than we beat them."
Swinney has limited first-hand experience, 0-1 in such scenarios as the Tigers (9-2) lost to South Carolina (9-2) in 2009 before playing in their first ACC title game. No. 18 Clemson, which has lost two of its last three games, faces the same situation this year as the ACC title game awaits next Saturday. But Swinney wasn't talking about the difficulty of the schedule this week, he had a different message for the Tigers.
"If you are a championship team, you are going to find a way to win," Swinney said.
As a receiver at Alabama, Swinney experienced a similar situation when Alabama faced Auburn prior to playing in the first conference championship game in 1992, when the Crimson Tide defeated Spurrier and the Gators.
"I remember (Alabama) coach (Gene) Stallings was ticked off," Swinney said of the schedule. "We were sitting there 10-0 and all we were thinking about was beating Auburn and now we have to go beat Florida in the SEC title game?"
While facing a rival before the title game might not be ideal, Swinney likes the traditional rivalry week.
"That's how I grew up in the state of Alabama," Swinney said. "It was my favorite week of the year because everything shut down. There wasn't going to be much school work, everyone was wearing their stuff all week, talking trash all week, it was just awesome. ... If you have the rivalry game earlier in the season, you don't know anything about each other and then it's over."
Swinney thinks the tough finish to the schedule in 1992 was beneficial to Alabama, which ended up defeating Miami in the national title game. There might be something to be said for a schedule elevating a team's level of play as Clemson was far better in a three-week stretch against ranked opponents - Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech - earlier this year than it was in recent games against lower-profile foes.
"I believe (playing Auburn and Florida back to back in 1992) prepared us for Miami in that national championship game," Swinney said. "We just reloaded."
This season, Swinney hopes Clemson can reload and avoid a repeat of 2009.