CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dabo Swinney has a good memory for where Clemson resided in the college football hierarchy when he was named the Tigers’ full-time head coach in 2009.
Perhaps that explains his rant, tirade or whatever you want to call it last week when responding to grumbling, real or perceived, over the Tigers’ 21-point win in the regular-season finale over rival South Carolina, which rolled up 510 passing yards and 35 points.
Swinney went as far as to call it “shameful” that anybody would suggest it felt like a loss to win by three touchdowns, and he offered up his own suggestion: Maybe it was time for him to go someplace else if the expectations had indeed become that outrageous.
Now, Swinney isn’t going anywhere, but neither are the expectations. It’s a reflection of what he has built at Clemson, and we were reminded yet again Saturday night at a rainy Bank of America Stadium that Swinney’s Tigers are truly one of college football’s juggernauts.
So much so that a 42-10 rout of Pittsburgh and record fourth straight outright ACC championship almost seemed ho-hum.
Now, before Swinney goes off on another diatribe, that’s meant as a compliment. This is a program that has come a long way after last winning an ACC championship in 1991 before stringing together this current four-peat. And Swinney has also come a long way since his days as an excitable wide receivers coach who former athletic director Terry Don Phillips promoted to head coach — much to the chagrin at the time of several in and around the Clemson program.
All Swinney has done is win 53 games in his last four seasons and has the Tigers ticketed for a fourth straight College Football Playoff appearance when they take on Notre Dame on Dec. 29 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. For perspective, when Swinney took over in 2009, Clemson had last won 10 games in a season in 1990. The Tigers have now done it in eight straight seasons, which is a mere appetizer for those in Tiger Town.
“This is why we stayed, to finish what we started,” senior defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, one of the Tigers who chose not to enter the NFL draft last year, said as he celebrated with teammates and fans in the muddy aftermath of the bludgeoning of Pitt. “We have our own standard at Clemson, and that’s the standard we hold ourselves to. It doesn’t matter what anybody outside of our family thinks.”
Clemson (13-0) was tabbed as the No. 2 seed in this year’s College Football Playoff, and already there’s anticipation of a fourth straight postseason matchup with No. 1 Alabama.
“It’s like Coach Swinney always says: We didn’t get here by taking anything for granted, and we’re not going to start changing now,” defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. “All that matters is what’s right in front of us, not what happened last year or what might happen later this year.”
As Swinney was on the podium, accepting the ACC championship trophy Saturday in Charlotte, he reminded everybody it was 10 years ago to the day he was named Clemson’s head coach. He understands what a monster he has created and that it’s a monster that must continually be fed. But he’s not going to fall into that camp where anything other than a national championship is somehow viewed as a disappointment.
“I’ve got a very good memory and a very good perspective on where we are as a program and how we got here,” Swinney told ESPN prior to this season. “Sometimes fans … they want more and more and more, and they think you win a national championship every year.
“It doesn’t work that way.”
Maybe not, but outside of Alabama, nobody in college football has been as close to a sure thing. The Tigers are 17-2 over the past four seasons against AP-ranked teams and, something Clemson fans are especially proud of, 13-6 against SEC teams over the past eight seasons.
“We might have some years where we’re in the championship, some years where we get beat, but we’re going to be in it and be a team that’s going to be relevant and be a team that’s going to have a chance,” Swinney told ESPN this offseason. “Now, there are funny bounces and years where it doesn’t go right for you, but we’re not going to be a team that’s up and down. That’s not who we are.”
Who the Tigers have been this season is a team rarely pushed to the limit, at least not since a 27-23 escape at home against Syracuse on Sept. 29 when freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence was knocked out of the game. Redshirt freshman Chase Brice came off the bench to rally the Tigers, who were still coming to grips with quarterback Kelly Bryant leaving the team earlier in the week after being told he was being replaced by Lawrence.
Since that scare, Clemson has won its last eight games by at least 20 points and averaged 50 points per game along the way.
“These guys have just been locked in all year long,” Swinney said. “They love each other. They really, really like and appreciate and love each other. It’s a very close football team. Our practices, they’re no-nonsense. It can be a grind. I mean, there’s a lot of monotony in what you’ve got to do to get ready week in and week out. Every week, we’ve been favored. It don’t matter. These guys just get ready as if we’re playing the [New Orleans] Saints every week.
“That’s kind of the mindset of these guys. They want to play well.”
Big stages don’t faze these Tigers. They beat Alabama two years ago for college football’s top prize, a year removed from losing a heartbreaker to the Crimson Tide in the national championship game.
And here the Tigers are, back in a position to win it all.
“We don’t have guys who really get complacent and think, ‘OK, we’re good,'” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “We really haven’t had to push guys in practice. This offense is probably one of the best offenses that I’ve been around that likes to practice and goes out and puts in the work. There will be little things that get corrected. But for right now, we’re going to celebrate and enjoy this and let these guys get a little bit of rest.”
And while Swinney will never concede that it’s “national championship or bust” at Clemson — much like it has been at his alma mater, Alabama — he says the Tigers’ goals will remain very simple.
“We want to win the opener, want to win our division, win our state championship, win this league and win the closer,” Swinney said. “Those allow us to compete at the highest level.”