“If you’re asking me, I think it’s a pretty good bet. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I’m confident in my abilities, always have been.”- Dabo Swinney, December 2008 at his press conference upon being announced as full time head coach of Clemson
Dabo Swinney is not afraid to speak his mind and he’s made that known over the years time and time again. Hired as the full time coach after only seven games on the job, Swinney has had varying degrees of success in his first three full years on the job. A former Alabama walk on that was part of the 1992 National Championship team, Swinney has been accustomed to winning and brings that attitude and expectations to a franchise desperate to reclaim the glory days of the 80′s.
2011 was a major step forward for the program as a whole. The Clemson football team won 10 games for the first time since the 1990 season and went back to the ACC title game after coming up short in 2009. Behind new offensive coordinator Chad Morris the Tigers’ offense became one of the most feared units in all of college football as their high-scoring passing attack orchestrated a run to the Orange Bowl. Nonetheless the 70 flavors of bitterness they tasted down in Miami undoubtedly put an asterisk on the season that will forever have that memory attached to any mention of their ACC championship.
Dabo Swinney wanted to change the culture at Clemson and through his first four (about) seasons it’s hard to argue he hasn’t. Clemson for years was the “going to be’s” of college football. The stat most telling about the mudhole their tires were trapped in is the 12 seasons of no more than nine and no less than six wins which any Clemson fan has had told time after time. Yet in three years Dabo Swinney and Clemson won two ACC Atlantic titles, a conference crown, reached top 10 status, their first BCS bowl and perhaps more than anything else national attention on a weekly basis.
This season to date has been yet another season where the Tigers have moved into the upper-echelon of college football and yet there seems to be something lost in all of it. The loss to Florida State robbed Clemson of something special. Clemson has pounded the rest of their schedule and enters the rivalry game with South Carolina at 10-1. What might have been will always be a question if they beat South Carolina yet big prospects still lie ahead for a team who enters #11 in the BCS and right in the thick of a BCS at-large race.
For Clemson the South Carolina game is more than a rivalry game in 2012. It represents credibility for a season that despite all the offensive records, despite all the blowout victories hasn’t proven much. The Tigers have four wins over teams with a winning record, three of which are 6-5. Their highest ranked win according to BCS standings is Ball State at #47. Their strength of schedule is 62 according to CBSSports’ Jerry Palm. In a year that has seen them inside the top 15 for the better part of the season, the lack of respect they’re getting nationally is evident in their lack of progress up the BCS standings, minimal recognition in the national awards and computer profile.
If you take the name off the jersey and put the resume’ on a piece of paper you’d think it’s a team from the Mountain West or MAC. That’s not necessarily Clemson’s fault. Auburn is a major non-conference games most years. Knowing Auburn was going to fall back to this level of ineptitude 12 months ago wasn’t foreseeable. Nonetheless reality is the win doesn’t mean much for 2012. South Carolina can change all that. The Gamecocks enter Death Valley as the #12 team in the BCS and with possibly the best D the Tigers have seen all year. If Clemson wants the 2012 season to be seen as a statement season and the sign of progression, a win over South Carolina is a must.
Dabo Swinney has taken the Tigers to new heights. He has re-energized a fan base that was put through over a decade of similar results. Clemson believes it has arrived on the map and should be mentioned among the nation’s elite. Dabo Swinney gets Danny Ford comparisons on a regular basis. Yet the program won’t ever get that respect nationally by winning a lot of ACC games. That’s the nature of the beast given the makeup of the conference. It’s a down league right now. After three straight losses to South Carolina, Clemson needs a win to turn the tables in-state while gaining the notoriety they feel is owed to them for their success.
Whether it is the Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or Chick-Fil-A Bowl, the Tigers have a promising bowl and worthy opponent awaiting them regardless of Saturday’s outcome. With a team that could be highly ranked starting in 2013, a lot hinges on the outcome of these final two games. Clemson won’t play for the ACC title this year. That right belongs to Florida State.
With that said, there’s more for Clemson to attain than ACC respect. The nation is watching and waiting to see if Clemson is an elite contender or bad conference bully. Saturday night in Death Valley we get our answer to that question.
Dabo Swinney said he was worth the gamble. Two Atlantic Division titles and an ACC Championship later, I’d say that’s been proven true. But like all great programs, it’s only natural to want more. There’s a Top 15 matchup being played in Death Valley on Saturday Night on ESPN. A win might mean another BCS bowl. The only question the 2012 Tigers have left to answer is “Can they beat an elite team?”
Soon enough we’ll have the final answer.