A day before Clemson took the field in what ultimately became its final game of a tumultuous season, Dabo Swinney tried to explain how his team fought to get to that point.
The Tigers reached another College Football Playoff semifinal after players pushed for social justice reform and to play through a pandemic. They withstood their first regular-season loss in years after star quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined by COVID-19 at the worst possible time. And Swinney’s team, once viewed as college football’s plucky upstarts, had suddenly become the villain in the eyes of many fans and commentators.
Heading into the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State, Swinney explained what he believed was the key to the program’s six straight playoff appearance: “We’ve just tried to find ways to find joy in the journey.”
There wasn’t much to enjoy after the Buckeyes’ convincing 49-28 victory against the favored Tigers on the field of the Mercedes Benz Superdome — now, officially, Clemson’s own house of horrors. Inside the locker room, a veteran team was hurting, Swinney said. He loved this team like none before it, a point he repeated throughout the run up to the Sugar Bowl. Swinney reiterated how he had coached some great teams, but none like this one. It’s not hard to believe; when the pandemic turned the sports world on its head, Clemson closed ranks and inevitably made this a particularly tight-knit group.
Now, the Tigers had reached the end of the line.
Swinney fell back on his innate ability to find a silver lining in even the darkest of moments. From the pandemic protocols to social injustice to overall player empowerment, it is in the coach’s DNA to be an optimist.
So, he tried again to find something good to point to after Clemson’s second-straight blowout loss in the College Football Playoff.
“We are 10-2,” Swinney said. “A lot of people didn’t think we would even play.”
It was the best Swinney could do: Clemson was 10-2. It was better than nothing.
Clemson’s loss was the program’s latest inflection point since Deshaun Watson first carried the Tigers past rival South Carolina on a torn ACL in 2014 and pivoted the program toward elite status in the ACC. Friday’s loss, however, looks like the start of a path into the unknown.
It was the final chapter for Lawrence and star running back Travis Etienne, two of the best to ever put on the Clemson uniform; it was another measuring stick against the best of the best in which Clemson came up short; it was a loss that broke the hearts of Clemson fans, but came with an outpouring of schadenfreude from rival fans, thrilled to see Swinney get his comeuppance.
After this season’s letdown of an ending, one big question looms for Clemson for the first time in a long time: Where do the Tigers go from here?
How much is Swinney willing to change?
After the Sugar Bowl, Swinney talked extensively about how much his team was forced to endure this season, but when asked what he’d personally learned from the experience, he didn’t detour much from his standard optimistic self.
“Well,” Swinney said with a laugh, “I learned what Zoom was.”
College football has changed; but, beyond getting a bit more tech savvy, Swinney has not. Throughout the season, he has lashed out (hello, Florida State) and remained steadfast in his convictions, even if it meant slighting his College Football Playoff opponent on his USA Today Coaches Poll ballot and providing a week’s worth of bulletin-board fodder in the process.
In the aftermath of his loss to those 11th-ranked (per Swinney) Buckeyes, Swinney’s unwavering — um, Dabo-ness? — now seemed like a massive liability, despite it once being the epitome of what modern coaches hoped to convey to recruits, fans and media.
When COVID-19 first shut down most sports across the world, Swinney offered a rosy outlook, saying his team had adopted another of his trademarked acronyms: “T.I.G.E.R.S.” — “This Is Gonna End Real Soon.” The mantra initially led to criticism that the Clemson coach wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously, and later gave Ohio State source material to turn the tables on Swinney via social media:
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) January 2, 2021
Swinney has also received blowback for similarly naive, misguided or misunderstood comments on issues like player compensation and Black Lives Matter. Clemson tailback Darien Rencher said some of the criticism is fair, while adding that some are outsiders who misunderstood Swinney’s approach or ignored the environment he created that gave Rencher, Lawrence, Cornell Powell and Mike Jones Jr. the platform to speak out on some of those same issues.
“He’s gonna say some things that people don’t agree with and do some things that are wrong,” Rencher said earlier this season. “But his track record, that’s what you can say about a person. Look at what he’s built. He built a program to empower football players and to make them more than just football players. I think you’ve seen that this year. We would not be doing things we’ve done on and off the field if it wasn’t for the program and the culture he’s built to support us.”
Swinney has labeled himself “a traditionalist.” It’s why he said he didn’t like the stickers that supported social justice reform being added to Clemson’s helmets. Nothing against the message, he said, but he wasn’t a fan of the uniform changes. It’s why he’s against paying players, expanding the playoff and any other issues in which wider perceptions have shifted to a more progressive take. Swinney has remained entrenched in his beliefs and his critics will argue his traditionalist approach continues to alter his image — from a quotable overachiever, to self-serving power broker who is out of touch with the real world.
But perhaps the most pertinent on-field point for Swinney to consider in the near term: Ohio State beat Clemson on the strength of two transfers, Justin Fields and Trey Sermon. Swinney has refused to enter the transfer market and said this season that while he might be forced to change his outlook, he would do so reluctantly.
Clemson’s 2021 recruiting class is shaping up as one of Swinney’s best, so any off-field distractions have not altered prospects’ enthusiasm. But Swinney’s long-term take on key issues — from unionization to the transfer portal — will continue to be tested.
Can the Tigers build an elite offensive line?
Justin Fields overcomes a brutal hit and throws six touchdowns leading Ohio State to the dominant Sugar Bowl win over Clemson.
Clemson was a preseason favorite because of Lawrence and Etienne, but what was lost amid the superstars was a nearly complete overhaul in the trenches. In the end, the new-look O-line wasn’t up to the task.
Etienne’s surprising return hardly went as planned. While he blossomed as a receiver out of the backfield, he often found a brick wall at the line of scrimmage, finishing the season averaging just 5.4 yards per rush — more than two yards below his career average. It was hard to blame Etienne. In 2018, when he was the ACC’s player of the year and Clemson won a national championship, Etienne averaged 4.4 yards before contact. In 2020, he averaged just 2. In each of Clemson’s losses — against Notre Dame in November and Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl — the Tigers were dominated at the line of scrimmage. Etienne’s rushing totals in the two games combined: 28 carries, 60 yards.
The issues were possibly the result of so much transition, with four new starters on the line. But it’s also worth noting that only two O-linemen from this recent Clemson run were drafted last year (John Simpson in the fourth round and Tremayne Anchrum in the seventh), while just two others have been drafted during Swinney’s tenure, one of whom came in the NFL’s supplemental draft. Meanwhile, former five-star recruit Mitch Hyatt went undrafted, and current recruiting prodigy Jackson Carman has been inconsistent at left tackle.
If Clemson’s goal is to win at the highest level, this area stands out as a genuine and consistent shortcoming. During this six-year playoff run, the Tigers have rushed for just 84 yards per game against top-10 opponents and 174 per game against everyone else.
“They absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage,” Swinney said of Ohio State’s performance Friday. “You can’t win games like that.”
How does Clemson replace two legends?
Talent comes along every year at a program like Clemson, but Lawrence and Etienne earned different distinctions over their collegiate careers. They are “generational talents.”
Swinney called Lawrence “the greatest winner I’ve ever been around.” Etienne is unquestionably the best tailback in the ACC’s history. Both players commanded an immense amount of respect in the locker room.
Players come and go, but the point of a “generational talent” is it comes around just once in a generation. Swinney and the Tigers have already proved that rule may not apply at Clemson — Lawrence took the baton from Deshaun Watson, and the D-line lineage (from Vic Beasley to Christian Wilkins to Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee) is as solid as Howard’s Rock.
Still, the expected departure of Clemson’s two greatest players ever certainly marks the end of an era, and it’s an open question whether 2021 will officially begin a new one.
D.J. Uiagalelei subbed in for Lawrence for two games this past season as the star QB recovered from COVID-19. It was an auspicious sneak peek into the future. Uiagalelei looked terrific in a comeback win against Boston College and an overtime loss to Notre Dame in which he threw for more yards than any opponent in the rich history of the Irish program.
Clemson’s 2021 signing class includes running back Will Shipley, a five-star stud ranked 21st overall in the class by ESPN. He’ll join Lyn-J Dixon, already accomplished in a backup role.
If one thing is certain at Clemson, there will be no shortage of incoming talent.
How does Brent Venables adjust?
No coordinator in college football is as accomplished as Venables, the longtime defensive guru for a Clemson program whose defenses are routinely among the best in the country.
No one doubts Venables’ pedigree or ability to adjust, but here are numbers he’s not going to ignore: 49, 47 and 42. Those are the point totals Clemson surrendered in its last three losses. From 2014 through the end of the 2019 regular season, Clemson’s defense allowed 500 yards or more just three times. In the Tigers past 16 games, it’s happened four times.
Ohio State exposed Clemson’s secondary downfield, Sermon rumbled through tacklers in the Tigers’ linebacking corps, and the defensive front got virtually no pressure on Fields. Most shocking of all was how consistently Venables’ defense looked confused and out of position.
There are few coaches more intense, prepared and willing to adapt than Venables. What he does with this defense moving forward might still be his biggest challenge.
How will Clemson’s season be remembered?
Some of the things Clemson’s players accomplished will never be accounted for in the standings. Years from now, the impact Lawrence, Rencher and others had on player empowerment might be seen in the form of a players’ union, genuine compensation and a more equitable landscape in the sport.
But, right now, it’s hard to get past the sting of Friday’s loss to Ohio State.
“Obviously [this game] didn’t go well, but I know that the way I prepared, the way this team prepared, and then just this whole year, the way we’ve carried ourselves, I’m proud of it,” Lawrence said. “I don’t have any regrets. There’s not much I’d go back and change.”
Lawrence is a Heisman finalist, but odds are against him winning it. Clemson will say goodbye to a second once-in-a-lifetime QB within the past seven years with neither landing the sport’s most prestigious award. Etienne will go down as the best back in Clemson history, rewriting the record books at Clemson and in the ACC. But he also played three games back in his home state of Louisiana, all in the College Football Playoff and all losses. He won’t be remembered for that, but he will certainly be haunted by it.
The majority of Clemson’s 2020 stars — Lawrence, Etienne, Powell, James Skalski, Nolan Turner — have championship rings from seasons past, but will remember 2020 as a quest left unfinished. This wasn’t Clemson’s best team, but it might have been its most impactful one, particularly off the field. Because of that, what awaits might be far different than what it would’ve been without them.
“The ripple effects at other schools, that was the coolest part for me,” Rencher said. “To have other guys reach out and want to do what we did … that’s been the coolest moment for me to see us stepping up in a way that kind of led to other people stepping up. It’s a domino effect.”