Dabo Swinney has known for a long time what a winning program looks like.
The Clemson head coach won a national championship as a player at Alabama in 1992. He was also a part of several elite teams as an assistant with the Crimson Tide in the years that followed.
Now, the 46-year-old is leading his own college football powerhouse. The Tigers’ 42-36 victory over Louisville on Saturday is the latest example that Clemson is now the Alabama of the ACC.
For a regular-season matchup, it doesn’t get much bigger than Saturday night — two top-five teams, each with a Heisman hopeful at quarterback, playing in prime time on national television. There were lead changes, momentum-shifting plays and electric moments, but it all ended with Swinney giving yet another emotional postgame interview as the Clemson faithful stormed the field to celebrate.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson wasn’t perfect — his 20-of-31 outing for 306 yards and five touchdowns also included three interceptions — but it didn’t matter. Just like they usually do, the Tigers found a way to win.
The victory continued Clemson’s remarkable run of consistency over the last half-decade. Dating back to 2011, the program has posted 10 or more wins every season, and it will do so again this fall. The Tigers have won two ACC titles in that span, and after defeating the Cardinals, they’re now the clear front-runner to claim another one in Orlando this December. “Clemsoning,” once a regular topic of discussion in Death Valley, is no longer a thing.
A national title is still missing from Swinney’s head-coaching résumé, but his program is still king of the ACC. While Florida State is in the midst of its own stellar run, the Seminoles have been playing second fiddle in the Atlantic Division over the last couple of years. (Right now, they’re not even the third-best team in the league; North Carolina and Louisville have both defeated them.) FSU is much more susceptible to head-scratching losses; just this weekend, the Seminoles’ mental lapses on defense allowed North Carolina to march down the field in 23 seconds and drill a 54-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired.
Like Alabama, Clemson shows every sign of a healthy program. The Tigers are regularly in the championship conversation. They pump out top-10 recruiting classes year after year. They have an outstanding coaching staff. State-of-the-art facilities. A passionate fan base.
It’s all there.
A major part of what Clemson has done is deliver under the spotlight. Under Swinney, the Tigers have strung together numerous program-defining wins. The 25-24 thriller over LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl got the ball rolling. Then came a three-point triumph over then-No. 5 Georgia in 2013, and a five-point ‘W’ over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl later that season. The 2014 campaign had its ups and downs but ended with a 40-6 demolishing of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Last year, Clemson brought its own guts to an October showdown against Notre Dame, walking away with a 24-22 victory due to a stop near its own goal line at the west end of Memorial Stadium.
Then there was No. 3 Louisville on Saturday, which also ended with a stop near the goal line of the west end zone. The chronic inability to finish big games — so pervasive through 2010 — has been replaced with a polar opposite identity, as steely and strong as any program not located in Tuscaloosa.
This year is not over. The Tigers’ path to becoming a 13-0 conference champion will go through Tallahassee for a meeting with Florida State that could complicate the team’s title hopes. But for now, most signs are pointing to Clemson once again earning a spot at the table in the College Football Playoff, and Swinney’s squad has both the talent and depth necessary to make noise there.
By no means is a national title guaranteed, but it’s a distinct possibility. That has become a trend under Swinney, which is why Clemson is the Alabama of the ACC.