Dabo: ‘We’ve Got To Play Championship Football’ Against Virginia

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: daboswinney.com

When Virginia defeated rival Virginia Tech on Friday, the Cavaliers clinched their first ACC Coastal Division crown, becoming the last member of the Coastal to achieve that accomplishment.

Their reward? Facing No. 3 Clemson, the defending national champions, in the ACC Championship game this Saturday in Charlotte.

For weeks, while UVA continued to lead the division standings, skeptics questioned why the Cavaliers would want to take on Clemson, winners of 27 consecutive games.

Bronco Mendenhall’s answer would be simple.

“The Coastal Division championship, beating Virginia Tech, were certainly two things that had to happen to have the next door open for us,” Mendenhall said during Sunday’s ACC Championship teleconference. “[Those doors] have been [opened].

“Now what that has allowed is a caliber of opponent on a stage of significance that allows not only the testing and the proving and the battling, but the opportunity. Man, that’s exactly what we want for our program.”

Mendenhall added that it’s exciting, exhilarating that his program has reached this point a little ahead of schedule. In only four seasons, UVA has gone from 2-10 to 9-3 with two more games remaining.

What if, though, the Cavaliers get steamrolled by the Tigers, who have annihilated almost everything in their way for the past two seasons? Clemson has scored more than 50 points on six of its opponents this season, and in the 40s a few others, often pulling its most explosive players after the third quarter.

Does winning the division, then possibly getting pummeled in the championship game negate all the good before a national-television audience in prime time?

Dabo Swinney doesn’t think so.

“It’s a massive moment for what Bronco has done with the program, for them building their program, it’s a huge moment,” the Clemson coach said. “I mean, they just won the Coastal. They’re playing in a championship game. There’s a progression that you go through when you’re really building something special. I think that’s what they’ve been able to do to this point.”

Swinney said regardless of what the score may be, Virginia’s focus is to try to win the game and that the Cavaliers are good enough to win it.

“We’ve got to play championship football,” Swinney said. “Simple as that. As I tell our guys, we’re not entitled to win. We have to earn it every week, have great respect and humility for the process to get ready for every opponent. We do that. It won’t be any different this week.”

As far as the progression and process Swinney spoke of, he pointed out that Clemson played for their first championship his first year as head coach in 2009 and lost.

“We got back two years later in ‘11 and we won,” Swinney said. “Then we got our first bid to the Orange Bowl, gave up 70 points. Other people tried to let that overshadow what we had accomplished that year in winning 10 games, winning the ACC for the first time in 20 years. I refused to let that happen and so did our team.”

Instead, Swinney’s Tigers went on the next season to defeat LSU in the Chick-Fil-A-Bowl.
“It’s just all part of the journey,” Swinney said. “Regardless of who wins the game or what the score is or any of that stuff, this is a huge moment for both teams. You’re in a championship game. You’ve competed on the field for your division. It’s the culmination of an excellent conference season.”

Clemson opened as an early 28.5-point favorite to defeat Virginia in the game.

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