Clemson coach Dabo Swinney took a seat with Alabama’s Nick Saban, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops last week when the coaches representing the four teams in the College Football Playoff gathered in Atlanta.
The first question Swinney fielded regarded an earlier comment he made on a radio station about feeling like a “redneck that moved into a nice neighborhood.”
OK, Dabo. The “ah, shucks” persona works for you, but that’s enough.
There is only one team in the nation that didn’t fall victim to a “Clemsoning,” the label the Tigers have out lived in 2015. The Tigers, in the new definition, provided a “Clemsoning,” meaning a cleansing and scouring of 13 straight opponents.
The other three teams all have one loss. Second-ranked Alabama (12-1) was “Clemsoned” by Ole Miss (9-3) at home in its third game, No. 3 Michigan State by Nebraska (5-7) to end its unbeaten season in its ninth game and No. 4 Oklahoma by Texas (5-7) in the fifth week.
Dabo’s “ah, shucks” demeanor is why he is a go-to guy for a sideline interview that is actually interesting. He’s the guy that promised a pizza party at Memorial Stadium if Clemson made the playoffs.
If Saban wasn’t making so much money from TV inflating coaching salaries, he’d stiff-arm those sideline reporters. Dantonio and Stoops politely fulfill their obligation but never really offer much.
Clemson’s 13-0 season is its fifth straight in double figures in Swinney’s seventh year since he succeeded the dismissed Tommy Bowden. Swinney was named the interim head coach midway through the 2008 season.
Just how did Clemson displace Florida State – the ACC’s representative in the CFP a year ago and the 2013 national champion in the final Bowl Championship Series title game – in the College Football Playoff?
“I think 7 years ago when I got this job the biggest goal for me was just to become a consistent program,” said Swinney in the transcript. “Not really be a great team, but have a great program. A program that’s consistent. It’s been a long time since Clemson was relevant in that top 10, top 15 area, even though we won a national championship in 1981.”
There were disappointing losses to prevent an ACC title or ending the year with a bowl victory, but along the way the Tigers learned to play in big games. They also added a difference-maker, quarterback Deshaun Watson. As a sophomore in 2015, he was the ACC Offensive Player of the Year and third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
“Our objective was to build a program and to not take any shortcuts,” Swinney said. “You do that in a lot of ways: Graduation, recruiting, disciplining your program, structure and your staff — all of those things. We’ve been able to become very, very consistent. In ’11 when we won the league for the first time and won 10 games for the first time in 20-something years and that was great. That was a good place to start.
“But the message then was, OK, let’s see if we can kind of keep our head down and go play three, four, five 10-plus-win seasons together and become a consistent program. If you can be a consistent Top-10, Top-15-type program, then you’re going to have those years where you can put it all together. That’s kind of the way it’s been for us.”
The launching pad for 2015 was 10-4 in 2011, 11-2 in 2012, 11-2 in 2013 and 10-3 in 2014. This season Clemson had four Associated Press All-American picks: Watson, first team; defensive end Shaq Lawson, first team; and strong safety Jayron Kearse, second team; cornerback MacKenzie Alexander, third team.
A week after Swinney’s comments in Atlanta, the Tigers won a head-to-head recruiting battle with Alabama for five-star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence of Wake Forest (N.C.) High. Lawrence is among seven other 4-star prospects the Tigers have landed to date in their 2016 class. Last year Clemons landed three five-star recruits.
Lawrence explained how he felt comfortable with Clemson’s coaches and players. He added, “Alabama has history, but it didn’t feel right like Clemson.”
By the end of the interview, Dabo admitted the Tigers deserve their place at the CFP semifinal table.
“There is no question Clemson belongs,” he said. “We’ve been as consistent as anybody out there in the country. Then you’ve got to be able to step out of your conference and win big-time games and we’ve been able to do that. It’s not just this year’s team. It’s been a culmination of all of those guys that have helped us build a good foundation that I think can allow us to sustain that type of consistency.
“Yeah, that’s (the redneck comment) what I said this morning on the radio show. We’re kind of that redneck that moved into the nice neighborhood and everybody’s going where’d you come from? But these guys belong right where they are and they’ve earned it.”