Clemson is the next Alabama

I wasn’t always a Dabo Swinney fan. For his first few years as Clemson’s head coach, I called him the world’s highest paid cheerleader. He was high on energy and short on success. Dabo wore his heart right on his bright orange sleeves, but through two and a half years, he was 19-15. He had Clemson fans almost begging for Tommy Bowden back. The 2010 Tigers scored 24 points per game and finished 6-6. Nationally, Clemson football was an afterthought.

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Before the 2011 season, with his job on the line, Swinney rolled the dice. He hired Chad Morris, a legendary high school coach in Texas who’d spent exactly one season at the college level, as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator. At the time, Auburn was coming off a national championship season behind Cam Newton’s Heisman Trophy campaign. Newton’s offense was led by Gus Malzahn, who’s career path eerily mirrored Morris’. Malzahn spent nearly two decades coaching high school football in Arkansas before joining the Razorbacks in 2006, then moving on to Tulsa for two seasons as the Golden Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator. He returned to Auburn in 2009, and in his second year as the Tigers’ OC, they were national champions.

Dabo was following the Auburn blueprint.

All Clemson did in Morris’ first season was score 10 more points per game, win the ACC for the first time in 20 years. Their 38-10 roughhousing of Virginia Tech in the ACC title game earned them a berth in the Orange Bowl. Despite boasting an absurd amount of offensive talent – Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Ellington, Dwayne Allen – West Virginia wrecked the Tigers 70-33.

Step One of the Swinney Revolution was complete, but it was time for Step Two.  Kevin Steele was out as defensive coordinator, and in came Brent Venables. Venables was one of the most highly-regarded defensive coordinators in the country, leading a vaunted Oklahoma defense from 1999-2011. Things had gone sour in Norman after Bob Stoops hired his brother Mike back on the Sooners’ staff, and Venables jumped ship to join Swinney and Morris in Death Valley.

Swinney wasn’t a cheerleader anymore. He was a CEO.

For many of the best head coaches in college football these days, there isn’t a ton of coaching being done at all. At least not like it used to be. A head coach is the face of the program. He creates the vision, he cobbles together a staff, he oversees the gameplan, he tries to empty the boosters’ pockets…and then maybe he’ll do some coaching. Does that mean Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer aren’t getting their hands dirty during practice? Of course not…but as Swinney learned, it’s about much more than that. Swinney wasn’t coaching a football team, he was building a business.

Every school needs it savior. Dabo Swinney met Deshaun Watson when he was a sophomore in high school, and the two made an instant connection that would turn the fortunes of Clemson football forever. Watson committed early and stayed committed – a refreshing rarity in college football these days – and arrived on Clemson’s campus in 2014 with sky-high expectations.

All Watson did in three years was win two ACC titles and end his career with the most thrilling national championship game-winning drive in the history of the sport.

Now Clemson must move on. Watson casts a shadow all the way across Death Valley, and Clemson has a short window to capitalize on the momentum.

There have been other Deshaun Watsons — players who arrived at good-but-not-great programs and elevated them to a new level in two or three years. Michael Vick put Virginia Tech on the map. Marcus Mariota lifted Oregon to new heights. Johnny Manziel made Texas A&M the hottest school around. The hard part for each of those programs was riding that wave, cashing in on recruiting classes in the following years and staying near the top of college football. Of those three schools, Virginia Tech came the closest to staying put as one of college football’s elite, and even the Hokies’ memorable run had a shelf-life.

Under Swinney’s watch, Clemson is here to stay. Here’s why:

Location

Clemson is an ACC program in the SEC footprint. It’s nothing for Clemson to dip into Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the rest of the southeast and pull kids into the program. Hell, Deshaun Watson grew up not too far from Atlanta. The Tigers have always recruited the southeast well, but Swinney and his staff have turned it up a notch in the last few years.

Facilities

It doesn’t get any better than Clemson. College football is in the middle of an arms race for the biggest, most extravagant (and in a lot of ways, unnecessary) facilities to help woo recruits whenever they visit, and my God, does Clemson have a fortress

Clemson spent $55 million on this 150,000 square-foot monstrosity, which holds both its national championship trophies in a case right as you enter the building. It couldn’t have opened at a better time either, right on the heels of the Watson era and the school’s second national title. While the funhouses at Alabama, Tennessee, Ohio State and plenty of others are plenty extravagant, none of them stack up to everything Clemson has to offer.

The best part? The guy who directed the project is a guy named Thad Turpinseed, who Clemson HIRED AWAY from Nick Saban and Alabama in 2013!

The motto at Clemson: If you can’t beat them, hire their architects. Then beat them anyway.

Staff

We’ve been over this, but there’s not a more perfectly organized staff than Clemson’s. Dabo’s eccentric style all of a sudden fits in perfectly in a new era of college football. While guys like Saban and Meyer don’t need the bells and whistles to sell recruits on coming to play for them, look around at the new era of college football coaches and what they have in common. Swinney, Harbaugh, Herman, Fleck. These coaches dominate social media, and they connect with younger players (AKA recruits) in a way that resonates.

Now, results have to follow. There’s a fine line between being a motivator and a laughing stock. Swinney once flirted with it. The shtick can get old if you stop piling up the wins and start stacking more L’s. But Swinney and his staff have proven they can win a lot of games, and most importantly to 99% of the players they recruit, Clemson gets you to the NFL. The Tigers have consistently produced elite NFL talent for the last five years. Combine Swinney’s energy and vision with proven results like that, and you aren’t slowing that train down any time soon.

Personnel

At 21 of 22 positions, Clemson is more than equipped for a run at a third straight national title game. If Kelly Bryant, or Zerrick Cooper, or Hunter Johnson can prove even moderately capable under center, the Tigers have a legitimate chance to make a third straight championship appearance, something no team has done since Florida State from 1998-2000. If the Tigers can even win 10 or more games this season and avoid a post-Watson hangover, they’ll have momentum to carry over into becoming a dominant club again in 2018. 

Competition

The main difference between the ACC and the SEC is the talent at the bottom of the league. Unlike in the SEC, ACC powerhouses have several games each year that are so unfair they should be borderline illegal. Teams like Syracuse, Wake Forest, Virginia and even Duke have no business competing for 60 minutes against a school like Clemson.

Clemson has the two-fold advantage of being a sexy program while also playing in a top-heavy conference. The Tigers will likely face no more than four top-25 teams during any regular season run. Compare that with some teams in the SEC, or even the Pac-12 in some years, and the Tigers have it easier. Ten wins should be the absolute floor for Clemson for the foreseeable future. That’s Alabama territory.

Look, Alabama isn’t going anywhere. Despite the fact that he’s bored out of his mind, Nick Saban seems like he’s not leaving Tuscaloosa anytime soon. The Crimson Tide will continue to win so many SEC Championships they might as well pay rent to the Mercedes Benz Dome. Clemson was every bit as talented as Alabama each of the past two years – but the Tigers had Deshaun Watson. If Swinney continues to stockpile talent throughout the roster and can couple it with an elite passer under center – and he’s got several coming down the pipe – Clemson is poised to be the premier program in college football over the next 5-10 years.

It won’t be long until that national championship trophy case needs more than just room for two.

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