Under Dabo Swinney, shown with Heisman Trophy contender Trevor Lawrence (left), Clemson is 55-4 over the past four seasons. Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

From joke to juggernaut: Swinney, Clemson have come a long way

One morning this week, out of sheer curiosity, I clicked on the Urban Dictionary page for the term "Clemsoning ." It’s mostly a ghost town these days; the cobwebbed remnant of a social media hashtag long gone stale. The top definition, which details Clemson’s uncanny ability to fail miserably on a grand stage, is from October 2013, which dates to the era before Dabo Swinney turned Clemson into the best college football program in America. Hold on. Let’s say that again just because it’s all happened so quickly: Clemson is the best college football program in America. 

On Thursday evening, the Tigers open their season against ACC foe Georgia Tech, a game they will be heavily favored to win, just as they’ll likely be favored to win every game on their schedule this season. Their quarterback, sophomore Trevor Lawrence, is about the closest thing to a lock to be the No. 1 draft pick as you’ll find; a few more daring pundits, channeling the spirit of Beano Cook, have predicted that Lawrence will win back-to-back Heisman Trophies this season and next. 

Over the course of a few short years, Clemson has become so formidable that the Tigers, who blew out the Crimson Tide in last year’s national title game, are now considered a better program than Alabama, which under Nick Saban had established what seemed like the most impenetrable dynasty in college football history. 

Five years ago that may have seemed impossible. 

Clemson opened the 2014 season with a 24-point loss to Georgia and then followed it up a couple of weeks later with a vintage Clemsoning face-plant against top-ranked Florida State, in which the Tigers impressively snatched defeat from the maw of victory.  Something seemed just a little off about this program, and its charismatic coach, Swinney, looked as if he didn’t quite know how fix it. His attempt during a news conference to bury the burden of Clemsoning itself felt like the kind of forced-air rant of a coach struggling to shake off the past. And then, all of a sudden, Swinney did just that. 

Clemson has gone 55-4 over the past four seasons under Swinney. This is the first year in school history that the Tigers have been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll. Dabo’s become a folk hero locally thanks to his viscera-heavy metaphors, and this Clemson program is now so impeccably dominant that the unapologetically conservative Swinney, who’s essentially a softer version of pretty much every college football coach who ever lived up to 1979, has taken over for Saban as the proxy for all of college football’s ills and excesses — a punching bag for the frustrations of every other fan base’s message-board-driven angst.  

A Clemson-Alabama rematch in this year’s national championship game feels like an inevitability, and it also seems likely that Clemson would be heavily favored if it does happen. Swinney, who turns 50 this fall, seems unlikely to depart for any other job, except perhaps if Saban were to suddenly retire at Alabama. Clemson has blossomed from a running joke into the standard. Five years into this run, there is more momentum than ever. The over-under on Clemson’s win total this season is an astounding 11.5 — that means that Vegas essentially thinks it unlikely that the Tigers will lose a single game. Yet here’s something to be wary of: Since 2000, only two preseason AP No. 1 teams have gone on to win the national title; only 11 have done it since 1950. 

This feels like it could be one of the most predictable seasons in college football history, but the sport has a reputation of hurling a wrench into the machine when you least expect it. Would I feel comfortable betting against Clemson in any single game this season? Probably not. But what happens if some night in September or October against Syracuse or Florida State or Louisville, the Tigers lose a game they shouldn’t have and they do it by failing on a grand stage? 

Over the years, Swinney has turned “Clemsoning” from a slur into a slogan. It feels like an obsolete phrase, but when the expectations are so unbelievably high, a single failure has the potential to reawaken the angst of the past.

Michael Weinreb has written about sports and pop culture for The New York Times, GQ, ESPN, Grantland, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Ringer, and many others. He is the author of four books, including Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. Find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb


The Morning Bark Newsletter. Emailed daily.

You'll receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams.

Emailed daily. Always FREE!

Customize Your Newsletter


Get the latest news and rumors, customized to your favorite sports and teams. Emailed daily. Always free!