Before Dabo Swinney was named head coach at Clemson, the program was nearly two decades separated from its last 10-win season.
The Tigers had endured the Tommy West years, which included two losing campaigns over the course of five seasons. Then there was the Tommy Bowden era, when “Clemsoning” became a commonly used term in the vocabularies of Tigers fans.
Since Swinney was promoted to interim head coach following the firing of Bowden in the middle of the 2008 season, and especially since that interim tag was removed following a victory over South Carolina at the end of that year, he has often talked about his vision for the future.
Swinney has never wanted to just assemble an excellent team. He set out to build an excellent program.
Over the last five years, Clemson has shown every sign of a healthy program. After falling short of 10 wins every year from 1991-2010, every Tigers team has won 10 or more contests from 2011-15. During that run, Swinney and Co. have beaten LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma in bowl games, while the likes of Florida State, Georgia and Auburn have fallen victim to Clemson in the regular season.
This fall doesn’t mark the first time the Tigers have been in serious contention for a national title. However, unlike the former glory days under Danny Ford in the ‘80s, there hasn’t even been a hint of scandal around the program during Swinney’s tenure.
The 2015 roster is loaded with talent, and there’s not a single area of weakness anywhere on the depth chart. What’s even scarier for Clemson’s opponents, though, is that there’s no indication that’s going to change anytime soon.
On the field, Deshaun Watson is the starting point for the success this season. Whether in terms of passing, rushing, decision-making, game control, toughness or leadership, the Gainesville, Georgia, native possess every quality there is to be desired in a championship quarterback.
Currently a true sophomore, Watson will be back again next year. He’ll even be joined by two-time All-ACC selection Artavis Scott — also a sophomore — as well as talented wideout Mike Williams, who will return after missing this fall with a broken neck.
Redshirt sophomore running back Wayne Gallman will at least have the option to declare for the 2016 NFL Draft. With 1,332 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing on the season, he’s one player who could potentially leave, but he does have two years of eligibility remaining.
With or without Gallman, Clemson will likely be able to find someone who can produce on the ground behind an outstanding offensive line. All five of the team’s O-linemen made All-ACC teams this year, and only two of those players are seniors. That group has paved the way for the Tigers to rush for 222.15 yards per game this fall, and it has tied UNC for the fewest sacks allowed in the ACC with only 14.
Many of the right pieces are in place defensively as well. Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson told Fox 26 Sports in Houston that he plans to enter this May’s NFL Draft, and multiple others — cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse, to name a couple — could follow, but Clemson is stacked with young talent on that side of the ball.
Playing his first season in a starting role, junior Kevin Dodd was terrific, logging 15 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. Linebacker Ben Boulware also took advantage of increased playing time as a junior, registering 71 tackles and collecting second-team All-ACC honors.
Clemson’s staff has also put itself in fantastic position to compete for years to come by winning battles on the recruiting trail. According to 247Sports Composite rankings, the team’s 2014 recruiting class ranked No. 17 nationally, while its 2015 class was the eighth-best in the country.
The Tigers’ 2016 group, which is currently ranked No. 19, isn’t expected to hit the 25-member maximum like last year’s class, but Clemson is still in the running for multiple blue-chip prospects. Earlier this month, the staff landed a commitment from Hunter Johnson, who is one of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2017.
With its Orange Bowl matchup against Oklahoma approaching, Clemson will be looking to take yet another step forward. Win or lose, however, the Tigers won’t be falling off at any point in the foreseeable future.
When Swinney took over, he wanted to build a program.
And that’s exactly what he has done.