Clemson confident in rebound season after finishing with lowest ranking since 2014

·8 min read

Dabo Swinney insists that Clemson is going to be fine, and he’s probably right. When you’ve won as much as he has over the last decade, becoming the second-best program in college football behind Alabama, fading back to second-tier status isn’t a consideration.

Clemson, in fact, has done everything in its power to ensure those days of piddling around as Atlantic Coast Conference underachievers are gone and never coming back. It has given Swinney everything he’s wanted, starting with a 10-year, $92 million contract that puts him in the highest echelon of coaching salaries. It has built top-of-the-line facilities. It has given him carte blanche to spend on assistant coaches and other staffers. He insists the program is in such good shape now, it could practically run by itself.

“If the good Lord took me out of here today, Clemson is built to last,” he said last December.

But despite Swinney’s assurance that the Clemson machine is still humming along, there is an unease around his program for the first time since it broke into the blue-blood club with the Tigers ranked No. 4 in the preseason the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll - its lowest starting position since 2017.

Syracuse defensive linemen Cody Roscoe and Steve Linton (17) combine to sack Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei during the first half at the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse defensive linemen Cody Roscoe and Steve Linton (17) combine to sack Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei during the first half at the Carrier Dome.

After missing the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014, Clemson was forced into the biggest reset of Swinney’s tenure when defensive coordinator Brent Venables became Oklahoma’s head coach and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott got the head coaching job at Virginia. A handful of other people who had been crucial to Clemson’s two national titles followed them out the door, including defensive line coach Todd Bates and director of operations Thad Turnipseed. Clemson also lost athletic director Dan Radakovich to ACC rival Miami, promoting his deputy Graham Neff to the top job.

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This is, in many ways, the norm at elite football programs where staff members are in high demand on the job market and thus constantly shuffling in and out. At Clemson, though, change has been pretty rare under Swinney.

Venables, arguably the top defensive coordinator in the country, stayed for a decade before Oklahoma finally lured him away. Elliott, who shared offensive coordinator duties with Jeff Scott until Scott left for South Florida in 2020, took the Virginia job after years of shunning opportunities to leave.

For a program that had been built on an unusual amount of continuity, Clemson was suddenly forced to navigate an offseason of immense change – and it had to do it on the heels of a 10-3 season when there was obvious on-field slippage from the Deshaun Watson/Trevor Lawrence era teams that could beat anyone in the country.

“It’s no different to me than when we lost Tajh Boyd and lost Sammy Watkins,” Swinney said, referring to two players who helped build Clemson’s foundation of success before it broke the national title ceiling in 2016. “You keep developing, keep growing, keep moving and getting better. I love continuity, but I also love change and new opportunity.”

Nobody bats an eye when Alabama loses a slew of assistants or Georgia shakes things up on the coaching staff. But Clemson’s staff had been so stable for so long, it feels like a major flash point in whatever the next decade is going to look like for Swinney. Is this a much-needed reset that can inject some fresh energy into Clemson, or is it a sign of trouble for a program on its way down?

Based on Swinney’s history, it’s foolish to bet against him.

“If people don’t believe in me after 13 years of what they’ve experienced at Clemson, they ain’t ever going to believe in me,” he says, citing seven ACC titles and 11 consecutive years of double-digit wins, things that hadn’t been done regularly since the 1980s.

But what Clemson achieved between 2015 and 2020, losing just seven games total over six seasons, undeniably set a new standard. And in 2021, that standard was not met as the Tigers fell out of national and ACC title contention by the middle of the season with losses to Georgia, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh.

Though Clemson played better in the back half of the season, knocking off nationally ranked Wake Forest and then beating Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl, it was not the year anyone envisioned when the Tigers started at No. 2 in the preseason poll.

Was their underperformance due to youth? Injuries? A drop in talent level? All three of those things could have played a factor, but the last one is the most interesting.

After a smooth transition from Watson to Lawrence at quarterback, former five-star recruit D.J. Uiagalelei struggled with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Will Shipley is a nice running back, but he’s not in the class of Travis Etienne, a two-time ACC player of the year. After a long run of game-changing wide receivers coming through Clemson, the well finally ran dry. last season.

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Though Clemson certainly got its share of talent, especially at quarterback, it did not build a monster program the same way Alabama or Georgia did by stacking top-ranked recruiting classes. The secret sauce for Clemson had always been about talent identification, cultural fit, development and maximizing the ability of the five-star recruits it did land.

But, of course, college football has changed quite a bit over the last couple of years with players being granted one free transfer and the ability to make money off their name, image and likeness. Swinney is both highly stubborn and an undeniable traditionalist who rails against the so-called professionalization of college football. He also shunned the transfer market as Clemson became a national power and has said he will only look to the portal as a last resort to fill a roster hole rather than trying to aggressively upgrade certain positions.

Swinney, of course, can build the program however he feels is best – and he’s earned enough credibility to do it his way. He deeply believes in his system and culture. But if Clemson can’t get back to the national championship level, how much will Swinney be blamed for his slowness in adapting to the new world of college football?

That’s what will be at stake in the next couple of seasons, and that’s why some fans were both disappointed and perplexed when Swinney – with all the Clemson cachet and a pile of money available for assistant coaches – went to the same playbook he’s used before.

Rather than send a message that things had gotten stale at Clemson and hunt big-name coaches, Swinney replaced Elliott with Brandon Streeter, who had been on staff as the quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator since 2014. He elevated Thomas Austin from analyst to offensive line coach to replace the retiring Robbie Caldwell. And on defense, he replaced Venables with Wes Goodwin and Mickey Conn, both in-house promotions.

This thought process is, in essence, what drives Swinney: Not just showing his way works but that the Clemson culture he created is just as interwoven with the Tigers’ success as the individuals who helped implement the X’s and O’s.

“I’ve always set the tone for what we do on offense and defense, and that’s never going to change,” he said. “We have a philosophy that’s been in place here for a long time and everything we do is within that philosophy.”

But for every long-running college football dynasty, there’s a fulcrum where greatness either multiplies or begins falling apart. Whether it’s coaching changes, rule changes, conference realignment or arrogance, you can always look back on some moment or series of events where a program went one direction or the other.

There hasn’t been this much change at Clemson since Swinney’s fourth season when the Tigers got embarrassed 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. After that, he brought in Venables to run the defense and Chad Morris to overhaul the offense, moves that pushed Clemson up the ladder until it finally reached the top.

More than a decade later, Swinney has arrived at another inflection point with different and perhaps trickier stakes. Clemson has been in the mix for national titles long enough now that it’s where fans and recruits think they belong. Whether Swinney can keep that going will be a direct reflection of the choices he’s made over the last 12 months.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clemson, Dabo Swinney poised for college football rebound in 2022