As the television cameras honed in on Dabo Swinney following Clemson’s 40-35 triumph over Ohio State, we saw a grown man hopping around with a gleeful smile as if he was a child unwrapping that giant, mysterious package on Christmas. That package turned out to be exactly what Swinney wished for—an Orange Bowl Championship.
On Friday night, Swinney and his team sent a message to the college football world: Clemson is an elite program and can play with anyone in the country. Swinney’s tenure has not been devoid of big wins—the Tigers bested #9 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season, for example. But this was even bigger. This was Swinney going mano-a-mano with Urban Meyer, a two-time national champion, and a coach who came in four-for-four in BCS Bowls.
The game captivated the millions of viewers with its many twists and turns. Although the Buckeyes could have won the game, they led 29-20 late in the 3rd quarter after all, Clemson was the superior team. They outgained OSU by nearly 150 yards, won the turnover battle, and converted over half their third down attempts. Certainly, Clemson could have played better. Their 144 penalty yards were totally unacceptable and Tajh Boyd’s two interceptions left you scratching your head. But that speaks to the quality of team Swinney has assembled: Clemson doesn’t have to be perfect; they just have to play Clemson football.
And Swinney’s brand of football was on full-display last night. Elite athletes spread the field on both sides of the ball. Clemson has always attracted some elite players, but the depth is finally where it needs to be to win big games consistently. You don’t win 32 games in three years without depth. There have been teams that crashed the BCS party behind a few elite playmakers, like the 2011 West Virginia team that whipped Clemson. Without depth, though, there is no staying power.
Pundits criticize Swinney for being more of a rah-rah guy than a football savant, and perhaps that’s true to some extent, but Swinney knows how to run a program. He wisely hired the brilliant Chad Morris to run his offense. The move took some guts given that Morris spent all but one year at the high school level. Morris, of course, architects the renowned CU offense. And after the WVU embarrassment, Swinney ousted defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and lured Brent Venables from Oklahoma. The later move paid big dividends last night as the Clemson defense held Ohio State to under 200 yards rushing for only the second time this year and pummeled Braxton Miller all night long.
You cannot talk about Swinney’s strengths without mentioning his recruiting prowess. Most notably, he convinced Sammy Watkins to leave the state of Florida and sign with Clemson. His rare talent was on display during the Orange Bowl, where he broke CU and Orange Bowl receiving records with 16 receptions for 227 yards and two touchdowns. The majority of those catches were essentially run plays as Boyd would simply flick the ball to Watkins on screens, and the speedster did the rest.
Stars like Boyd, Watkins, and Vic Beasley will likely be gone next year and soon enough Chad Morris will land a head coaching gig, but Swinney’s greatest asset is his ability to sell recruits and coaches on Clemson. Danny Ford left CU in 1989, and the program stumbled thereafter, going 4-15 versus top 10 teams during the ensuing years. Since Swinney took over in 2008, Clemson is 5-3 against top 10 teams—the Tigers are finally back. Assistant coaches and star players will come and go, but with Dabo Swinney at the helm, there will be more Orange Bowl wins and maybe, someday, a National Championship.