June 19, 2019

Tigers on precipice, next two years huge for long term success

Editor’s Note: This page contains occasional opinion pieces on a variety of topics that are of interest to the author.

Six plus years into his tenure Dabo Swinney has the Clemson Tigers on solid footing.  The last four years have seen 42 wins and 11 losses, an ACC Championship and consecutive bowl victories over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

Swinney has pretty much nuked the ACC teams north of Clemson going a combined 33-4 against the North Carolina and Virginia teams, Boston College, Maryland and Syracuse while struggling against those to the south with a combined 6-11 record against Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami.

After breaking through in 2011 to win their first ACC title in over 20 years the Tigers have remained remarkably consistent over the last 3 years – 11-2, 11-2, 10-3  – and now celebrate their fourth consecutive 10 win season.

There have been bumps along the way for sure as Swinney has learned to be a head coach and lead on the fly. Losses to Georgia Tech and West Virginia in 2011 were embarrassing and put a damper on the long-awaited conference title. Five consecutive losses to South Carolina and imploding against Florida State in Death Valley in 2013 led many to question their belief in Swinney.

Overall though, when Swinney takes stock of what’s been accomplished and the fashion in which it’s been accomplished he’s right to be proud, as are most Clemson students, alumni, supporters and administrators.

There’s no doubt that Swinney has grown as a coach and administrator in the last six seasons, but there are truths to big time college football in today’s world of monster salaries and massive budgets.  It’s not enough to be consistent, if consistent doesn’t mean conference championships, major bowl wins and now playoff appearances.

Swinney isn’t just a coach, he’s also a salesman.  He sold himself to most Clemson fans, including me, at his introductory press conference.  He sold or helped sell C.J. Spiller, Tajh Boyd, Nuk Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mackenzie Alexander to name a few.

He’s also sold hope and patience to the Clemson faithful.

Sooner rather than later second place in the ACC Atlantic and Russell Athletic Bowl type wins won’t be enough.

Gruden Quote

There was a time when Clemson fans wanted Swinney to “just win the games we’re supposed to win”.  He’s done that as almost every D-1A team losing at least once and combining for 300 losses as favorites in between Clemson losses when favored.

There will come a point where that’s not enough.  At some point the dynamics and momentum changes and a tipping point happens.  The Tigers have playmakers and momentum, but how long will that last without conference titles and playoff appearances?

The next two years are important for the long term success of Clemson football.  An offense littered with real and potential superstars awaits co-offensive coordinator and play caller Tony Elliot in 2015, while the defense needs some rebuilding.

Are there questions that need to be answered before Wofford rolls into Death Valley next September 5? Absolutely.  There always are and always will be, but without the next step being taken the Tigers risk a tipping point in the wrong direction. A division and conference title are a must. A playoff appearance is highly preferable.  In 2015 both Florida State and Georgia Tech, two of the most recent biggest stumbling blocks, visit Death Valley.

At the end of 2016 Swinney will have been at Clemson for 8 full seasons.  At some point the building has to be complete or supporters will only see a lack of progress.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that two more 11-2 or 10-3 type seasons without a championship will be seen as a failure.  Those of us who have lived long enough to see the peaks and valleys that a team goes through over time understand that cycles occur for every team.  We enjoy the seasons like the one just past more than most.

That doesn’t change the fact that two years from now supporters will be looking for something more than a second place finish in the ACC Atlantic and a win in a mid-level bowl game over an underperforming team.  Hope and patience becomes a more difficult sell when there aren’t multiple championship trophies and perhaps a playoff appearance.

Swinney has set the bar high, higher than many believed possible in 2008 and he deserves credit for that.  The Tigers have climbed many hills in the last six years under Swinney’s lead and the last four have been a fun ride.

Now it’s time for the next step and the next step involves eliminating the remaining obstacles that have prevented this team from reaching the top of the college football world.

The next two seasons will tell us a lot about the future of Clemson football.   By the end of 2016 we’ll know if the Tigers have already peaked short of the summit and are enjoying the view before heading back down the mountain or if the summit still awaits.


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