When Dabo Swinney was named as the interim head football coach of the Clemson Tigers in 2008, nobody knew what to expect as he appeared to be a stop-gap guy. But under Swinney, Clemson would go 4-2 down the stretch which included them beating their in-state rivals in the South Carolina Gamecocks which led to him getting the job on a full-time basis. By 2009, Swinney would have the Tigers in the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game for the first time in school history which gave him some traction. But when the Tigers went 6-7 in 2010, Swinney appeared to be on the hot seat. However Clemson’s decision to stick with Swinney has been extremely beneficial for everyone involved as the program has gone to new heights.
In 2011, Swinney would lead Clemson to their first Atlantic Coast Conference Championship since 1991. And although that Clemson’s season didn’t finish on a positive note as they were blown out by the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl 70-33, they were headed in the right direction. Since then Clemson has won at least 10 games in each season while they’ve defeated some of the nation’s elite programs such as that of the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference and the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference. The last two years have seen Clemson win the ACC, while also having a spot in the College Football Playoff.
In 2015, Clemson had their moment in the spotlight which saw them as the top-ranked team for the majority of the season. The Tigers set a school record by winning 14 games and they played for their first national championship since 1981. But unfortunately for Swinney and the Tigers, the Alabama Crimson Tide were too much for them in the title game. But instead of sulking after the 45-40 loss to Alabama, the Tigers set out to take their experience from 2015 and improve on it.
With quarterback Deshaun Watson returning for his junior season, the Tigers began the 2016 college football season ranked second in the Associated Press Poll, and unlike 2015, they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on anyone.
Clemson took everyone’s best punch this year which included losing by a point at home to the Pittsburgh Panthers on November 12, while also having close calls against the Auburn Tigers, Troy Trojans, Louisville Cardinals, North Carolina State Wolfpack, and Florida State Seminoles. And after Clemson survived a fierce battle with the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, they were headed for the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year.
Just like last year’s Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, along with the title game versus Alabama, Clemson would be the underdog when they took the field against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl which was one of the national semifinals. The Buckeyes were national champions in 2015, and aside from winning the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2016 college football season, they were led by a head football coach in Urban Meyer that has won three national titles.
Clemson would begin the contest with Watson throwing an interception on their first drive. But Clemson’s defense would shut down one of the best offenses in the nation, while Watson and the Tigers offense would navigate through a defense that was expected to give the Heisman Trophy finalist fits. And when it was all said and done, Clemson defeated Ohio State 31-0 and they would be heading back to the title game as they won at a place in University of Phoenix Stadium that saw them denied a national title last January.
So now Clemson is headed back to the title game and they’ll be facing a familiar foe in Alabama. The only things that have changed heading into the title game are that this year it will be at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, while Alabama will be the designated home team. Clemson is still the underdog as Alabama is led by head football coach Nick Saban who has won five national titles and is one of the most revered minds that college football has ever seen.
On the other hand there is Swinney who is originally from Birmingham, Alabama and played for the Tide on their national championship team in 1992 as he is once again looking to lead Clemson to college football’s holy grail. Swinney was initially a walk-on at Alabama before earning a scholarship and just as he had to earn his stripes at ‘Bama, the same can be said about his coaching career at Clemson. Swinney has never been afraid to slay the giant as most of the Tigers recent success within the Atlantic Coast Conference has come at the expense of the Seminoles who dominated the conference for nearly two decades. And that lack of fear will once again be on display this Monday night when the Tigers clash with the Tide.
America has been long known as a country where people get second chances and after being so close to toppling Alabama last January, Clemson and Swinney will get another chance to forever etch their names into college football lore.