When Tommy Bowden was fired as the head football coach of the Clemson Tigers during the 2008 college football season, he was replaced by wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney on an interim basis. Swinney was not a big name on the college football scene and he figured to be a guy that would keep the seat warm until a suitable replacement was found for Clemson. Under Swinney, Clemson would go 4-3 for the rest of 2008, to finish the season with a record of 7-6. But Swinney’s ability to relate to the players at Clemson saw them go to bat for him when the school was looking for a new head football coach which led to Swinney getting the job on a full-time basis.
Swinney’s first full season would see the Tigers reach the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game for the first time in school history, but this would be followed up by a 6-7 season which left you wondering if he would be shown the door. However former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips would stick with Swinney which has changed the aspect of football on the school’s campus for all of the right reasons.
Clemson would go 10-4 in 2011 en route to winning their first Atlantic Coast Conference Title since 1991. And although that the Tigers were blown out in the Orange Bowl by the West Virginia Mountaineers 70-33, they were on the right track in regards to becoming a better program.
In 2012, Clemson would go 11-2 which was capped off by a victory over the LSU Tigers in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. And that victory over LSU was a turning point for Clemson as they were able to knock off one of the premier college football programs in the nation. Since then Clemson has not lost a bowl game and in the process they have become the program that the others around the nation want to emulate.
In the last seven years Clemson is 82-14 with four Atlantic Conference Championships (including the last three), as well as a national championship. And after Clemson’s 38-3 beat down over the Miami Hurricanes this past Saturday night in the ACC Championship Game, they are heading back to the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive year with an opportunity to defend their national championship.
Clemson came into this college football season as the defending national champs, and although that they began the campaign ranked fifth in the Associated Press Poll, they flew under the radar.
The Tigers had to replace quarterback Deshaun Watson who was one of the top players in college football as he was the heart and soul of their title team last season. Watson decided to leave school after his junior season in order to purse a career in the National Football League. But for Swinney, he has found Watson 2.0 to lead his team in 2017.
Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant spent the last two years as Watson’s backup, and in 2017 he has done his best Watson impersonation. At 6’4″, 220 lbs., Bryant has a similar build to Watson and he’s also done his part on the field this season as he passed for 2,678 yards with 13 passing touchdowns as well as 11 on the ground. And in Clemson’s only loss this season which came on the road the road versus the Syracuse Orange, Bryant left that contest early with a leg injury. The poise and play making ability of Bryant has allowed the Tigers to not skip a beat as they have picked up some huge victories in hostile environments en route to getting back to the College Football Playoff.
This season Clemson has road conference wins over the Louisville Cardinals, Virginia Tech Hokies, and North Carolina State Wolfpack who were all ranked at the time. And Clemson cannot be accused of playing an easy non-conference schedule as they also defeated a pair of teams from the Southeastern Conference. Clemson knocked off the Auburn Tigers who would go on to play for SEC Title and the South Carolina Gamecocks as both teams finished the regular season ranked in the final College Football Playoff Poll.
And once you put Clemson’s entire body of work together for this season, while also accepting the fact that their one loss was attached to Bryant’s inability to play, they are heading into the College Football Playoff as the top seed. The Tigers will take the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl, and in the process they will be facing a very familiar foe.
Each of the last two college football seasons have ended with Clemson facing the Alabama Crimson Tide for the national championship. In 2016, the Tigers appeared to have run out of time versus Alabama, but in the rematch this past January, it was the heroics of Watson that helped Clemson capture their first national title since 1981. And now college football’s newest rivalry will once again happen on the game’s biggest stage.
But it is not by accident that Clemson has reached this summit under Swinney. Even as an assistant coach Swinney was known for his recruiting ability which has only been magnified by the recent success of Clemson. The State of South Carolina is known for its high-school talent, and Clemson’s success has given Swinney the ability to keep the top talent within the state. Including Bryant, Clemson currently has 46 players from South Carolina on their roster and as the wins continue to pile up for Swinney, that number will not be decreasing anytime soon.
Swinney has already done at Clemson what many people before him failed to do which is make the Tigers a national power, and now he has raised the bar for his successor. There was a time when the notion of Clemson taking the field versus Alabama under head football coach Nick Saban would mean that the Crimson Tide would mop the floor with the Tigers. However those days are over as there is not fear on the part of Clemson, while there is mutual respect between both teams. There was a time when Clemson could not defeat Florida State in order to win the Atlantic Coast Conference as they would just be thankful to get a victory over NC State and make the Gator Bowl. But those days are over at Clemson as Swinney indeed has a system in place.
Swinney has not skipped a beat in spite of the fact that he is consistently sending first rounders to the National Football League Draft which includes Watson as well as Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. And that will continue as Clemson’s third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff will keep Swinney’s program relevant with the big boys on the college football scene.