Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett chose not to sign with an SEC program out of high school, figuring he wouldn’t play his first couple of college seasons.
Leggett’s now a senior All-America candidate who’s played in a national championship game. But heading into Saturday’s season opener at Auburn, Leggett still considers the SEC the standard for college football.
“I love playing against SEC schools. They’re the face of college football, the bigger (conference),” Leggett said. “When you play at those schools you’re playing on the biggest stage. I get excited when (Florida State) beats Florida.
“I think (the ACC) will be one of the better (conferences) in the next few years. (But) we’re going to be the underdogs for a while until we win more national championships.”
Second-ranked Clemson considers nonconference matchups with the SEC a foundation for building a playoff-worthy schedule each season. After the home-and-home with Auburn ends next season, Clemson will play Georgia the following two seasons. After that it’s a home-and-home with Texas A&M.
“That’s what’s helped to build the culture of our program,” coach Dabo Swinney said of tough nonconference scheduling. “The mentality to win those games.”
An end to a means?
The biggest personnel challenge for Clemson this season is replacing defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, who were in the first 33 picks of the 2016 NFL draft. They combined for 24 sacks last season.
Based on the depth chart Clemson distributed Tuesday, the primary options to replace Lawson and Dodd are Richard Yeargin, Christian Wilkins and freshman Clelin Ferrell. Wilkins previously played defensive tackle, but will play both end and tackle this season.
“We have a lot of inexperience. We’re really young,” sophomore Wilkins said. “We’re just trying to get comfortable playing. It does give us a little extra edge that we have to go up against such a good offense every day in practice. As much praise as they get, we go up against them every day.”
Swinney: Consistency matters
Clemson is looking to extend a streak of five seasons of 10 or more victories. Swinney said that’s about not being satisfied with what has just happened, even if that includes last season’s appearance in the national championship game.
“We don’t want to just have a good team, we want to have a great program,” Swinney said. “There is no complacency around here. We don’t spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back for what happened last year.”
Swinney was asked what his team learned from the 45-40 title-game loss to Alabama.
“Maybe a better understanding of what it takes,” Swinney said. “We’ve had a lot of consistency over the last several years. But this team has experience to really rally from (the national championship experience) that the others didn’t have.
“We’ve still got a lot to prove. I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been. … Until we win three national championships, we’re still little ol’ Clemson.”
A reunion of sorts
Saturday’s matchup with Auburn means Swinney and his staff will be coaching against former Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
Steele, now Auburn’s defensive coordinator, was fired by Swinney in January 2012 after Steele spent three seasons there. The two had disagreements about defensive strategy that led to the breakup.
“Kevin Steele is a heck of a coach, always has been. We didn’t have a change here because he wasn’t a good coach,” Swinney said.
Swinney said he aspires to continuity in his coaching staff, but turnover is inherent to the profession.
“It’s something I hope I never have to do a lot of,” Swinney said of firing assistants. “From time to time in anything when you’re in a leadership position you have to make tough decisions. Change comes with those decisions.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell