Clemson Proves That Almost Any College Football Team Could’ve Dethroned Alabama

You just have to do literally everything right.

Anchrum shakes a smiling Swinney's hand on the sideline as Wilkins looks on.
Clemson’s Tremayne Anchrum and Christian Wilkins celebrate their Monday victory over Alabama with coach Dabo Swinney in Santa Clara, California.
Harry How/Getty Images

There are about 15 different college football fan bases that believe their program’s level of prestige is such that they should have the best, most powerful, most glorious team in the sport every year.* And if a coach at one of these programs isn’t regularly winning conference titles and making the College Football Playoff, he is almost certainly “on the hot seat” and under attack from Twitter users and radio callers who are furious about how he is either calling too many passes (“games are won or lost in the trenches”) or not calling enough passes ("you’ve got to adapt to modern football”), depending on how many passes were called in the team’s most recent loss.

Of course, this is ridiculous. There are only four spots in the college football playoff available each year. And there are very few teams that have the structural advantages—money, national profile, local recruiting talent—that make being “elite” every season a realistic goal. It’s just not reasonable to expect to contend for a national championship every year—and especially so if you’re not one of the absolute blue-bloods in a sport whose outcomes are so predetermined by institutional resources and brand-name history.

On the other hand, Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers just created the most dominating juggernaut in college football—one that clobberized the bluest blood of them all, Alabama, 44-16 in Monday night’s national championship game for its second title in three years—out of basically nothing.

Although Clemson did win a national title in 1981, before Swinney took over in 2008 the team hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 1990. Even now, Clemson is only the 17th-best FBS program by all-time winning percentage (I’m not counting Appalachian State, which is new to the sport’s top level), on par with such vaunted powerhouses as Arizona State and Central Michigan. The school is in South Carolina, which is not among the top 20 states in population—and in Swinney’s first five seasons, Clemson lost five times in a row to their in-state rivals at the University of South Carolina . (Talk about a hot seat!) The term “Clemsoning” used to be college-football slang for losing a big game.

How did ol’ Dabo and the Tigers make the leap? Well, by getting basically everything right.

Strategy. Swinney personally oversees a state-of-the-art offense that, as was on display on Monday night, can employ its quarterback as both a running threat in the “power spread,” a threat to hit quick “RPO” (run-pass option) throws, and as a deep-bombin’ bomber. His defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, is considered the smartest and most effective in the country by some football wonks.

Style. It’s possible to win national titles by grinding the opposition down with slow, brutal trench domination—until a recent foray into the spread, Alabama used to do it seemingly every year—but Clemson wins by busting long, spectacular touchdowns and sacking the dang heck out of the opposing QB. They also have a culture in which their stars give the coach wet willies and pay homage to the ‘90s rap record label Death Row after winning titles. In a sport that involves convincing 18-year-olds with near-infinite options to play at your particular school, having style is its own form of substance. Speaking of which …

Recruiting. Clemson’s freshman class included five players rated as super-duper-elite “five-star” prospects in the 24/7 scouting database, including title-game stars Trevor Lawrence (quarterback) and Justyn Ross (receiver/wizard). That’s a lot of five-star prospects!

• Overcoming recruiting disadvantages. That said, Swinney has only recently reached the absolute top tier of the recruiting world, and per SB Nation’s count, seven teams started the season with more elite recruits (players who were rated with four or five stars in 24/7’s list) than Clemson. (That includes two teams, Florida State and USC, that went 5-7.) Clemson has punched above its weight class for the last several years, which probably has something to do with its program-wide stability—Swinney’s defensive and offensive co-coordinators have all been with his program since at least 2012, and by my count every player who started on the offensive and defensive lines Monday night was an upperclassman.

• Daring. Clemson made the CoFoPo (that’s what cool kids/adults call the College Football Playoff) last season with Kelly Bryant starting at quarterback. Bryant is very good—in 2017 he threw for 13 touchdowns and ran for 11—but Swinney bet that Lawrence would be better, and replaced his returning QB with the true freshman in September. It worked.

God. This one is half-facetious. But Swinney is vocal about his Christianity, and to be crass about it, that’s not the kind of thing that hurts a coach whose job involves traveling throughout the talent-rich American South to sell his program not just to 18-year-olds but to moms and dads who are trying to figure out which massively important authority figure to entrust with their child’s future. As the sports-religion writer Paul Putz has noted, there is an entire subspecialty of evangelical Christian ministry that involves the idea that faith can help build the kind of “team unity” and “individual peace of mind” that pays off on the scoreboard. One such believer: Trevor Lawrence.

Stuff that God might not approve of. Three Clemson players, including superstar defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, were suspended from the championship game after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. The players denied ingesting such a substance intentionally. Maybe they’re telling the truth. Or maybe they’re not telling the truth but they’re the only three players in the history of the Clemson program who’ve ever taken banned substances. Maybe we’ll find out the truth at some later date. Maybe not!

In summary, if your team’s coach isn’t doing all the things listed above, including both praising and potentially incurring the wrath of God, he should be fired.

Your mileage may vary but here’s who I would put in that group: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Texas, Texas A&M, and USC, with honorable mentions for Nebraska and Oregon. And … Tennessee? Sure, Tennessee.