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Carson: Clemson redefining itself under Dabo Swinney

| Monday, October 31, 2016

If you look up “Clemsoning” on Urban Dictionary — one of the internet’s true treasures — you’ll find the following top definition, posted in 2011: “The act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season.”

In a previous world, if there was one thing you could count on in college football, it was a disappointing performance from Clemson on a big stage. From the Tigers’ upset 37-13 loss at North Carolina State as the nation’s No. 7 team in 2011 to their 2013 home drubbing, 51-14 at the hands of Florida State in a No. 5 at No. 3 showdown, the very word “Clemson” became used as a proxy for failure and turned into a verb that applied to any school that found spectacular ways to lose.

And while it wasn’t a blowout loss, there was no better example of Clemsoning than the Tigers’ 2014 defeat at No. 1 Florida State. With just over two minutes remaining, in a game tied 17-17, Clemson forced a Sean Maguire — remember, this was the game Jameis Winston missed due to suspension — interception, returning it to the Seminoles 26. Game over, right? The Tigers would get their score, win the game and secure a program-defining win.

Wrong, of course. Clemson fumbled two plays later and proceeded to lose 23-17 in overtime.

Perhaps that defeat — seeing a chance to down No. 1 away from home slip away — was the moment things changed. Or maybe it was the 40-6 win over Oklahoma in that year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. But regardless, somewhere between that night in Tallahassee, Florida, and the start of the 2015 season, things changed at Clemson in a big way.

The Tigers went from the team that couldn’t win the big game to, well, the team that seemingly can’t lose one. Between their wins over Florida State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Oklahoma last year, to survival victories at Auburn, against Louisville and at Florida State this year, Clemson has been remarkably successful against some of college football’s best teams over the past two years, only dropping a national title game to Alabama during this stretch. It’s a reflection of a program transformation, one that’s taken the Tigers from a laughingstock of college football to one of the country’s most-feared teams.

It is entirely possible that head coach Dabo Swinney and Clemson don’t win a national title together. But while it’s possible, as long as things keep trending in the right direction, it seems more likely they’ll get the job done sooner rather than later — and perhaps this year. When the game’s been on the line over the last two seasons, Clemson’s defense has stepped up to make the play. Be it in the driving rain against Notre Dame, on a gorgeous night against Louisville or in a hostile environment at Florida State, the Tigers have consistently made one more play than their opponent in key moments.

That’s the mark of not just a good team, but a well-coached one.

The job Swinney has done, in all aspects, in Clemson shouldn’t go without mention. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are two great coaches, there’s no doubting that, but perhaps we should start thinking of Swinney as being in that top tier, too. Not only are the Tigers playing well on the field — assuming they don’t collapse down the stretch, this will be Swinney’s sixth straight 10-win season — but they’re recruiting at an elite level, too.

While it’s not like Clemson is some small-time program — the 1981 national title proves that — it isn’t like the Tigers had experienced considerable success before Swinney’s arrival. When Clemson won the ACC in 2011, it was the first conference title in 20 years and the first time finishing inside the AP top 20 since 2000. Before Swinney, Clemson simply wasn’t an elite destination, for players or coaches, in college football.

Now, the Tigers have helped lead an ACC renaissance and, unless something goes wildly wrong between now and the end of November, will play for another conference title and a spot in the playoff this December.

Dabo Swinney isn’t just a good coach. He’s one of college football’s best.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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