CLEMSON — For the past 12 months – and for one more week – a familiar refrain has rung out across the land.
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Whether that’s true for America is best left to others, but it is certainly true for Clemson’s football program.
Four years and 24 days ago, Dabo Swinney was thrust into power as the Tigers’ interim head coach. He became the full-time head coach in December 2008. And while there are those who disagree with his style or his methods, there is no arguing with his results.
Following Thursday’s 42-13 rout of Wake Forest, Clemson is 7-1 entering 2012’s final month, with three of its final four regular-season games at home. The Tigers remain in position – with another Florida State ACC defeat – to win their third ACC Atlantic Division title in four years and play for their second consecutive ACC championship.
Even without an ACC title, a 10-win season is well within reach. With three more victories, the Tigers will have back-to-back 10-win campaigns for the first time since 1987-1990 – the final three seasons of the Danny Ford era and the first of Ken Hatfield’s ill-fated run.
The program has taken a clear step forward following Tommy Bowden’s 10-plus year tenure. Memorial Stadium’s sparkling WestZone addition is an appealing front door for recruits, and the athletic department seemingly has an open checkbook for football, with the latest example the $10 million indoor practice facility set to open in December.
The man who was thrust into power four years ago has matured into the program’s CEO. Swinney was never so much as a coordinator, but he is smart enough to know his limitations.
Elevating Billy Napier from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator was ill-advised – Napier’s system was, at best, a rudderless ship – but Swinney corrected his mistake by plucking Chad Morris from Tulsa to install a hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Powered by stars like Tajh Boyd, DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, it has become one of college football’s most potent, exciting offenses.
Kevin Steele’s defensive system proved too complicated for the Tigers’ athletes. He departed following a 70-33 Orange Bowl embarrassment at West Virginia’s hands, and Swinney smartly replaced him with Oklahoma’s Brent Venables.
While the defense’s learning curve has been slower than the offense was under Morris last year, there has been clear progress: Clemson allowed 523 yards and 37 points per game in its first three ACC contests, but only 348 and 15 points in its last two.
Given that Morris and Venables are the nation’s highest-paid coordinator duo at $2.1 million annually, that sort of success should be expected. But given how some programs run through coordinators quicker than most of us change oil in our vehicles, it isn’t a given.
Swinney is smart enough to hire good people and then get out of the way, and know when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Besides Swinney, wide receivers coach Jeff Scott is the only assistant remaining who coached games as a full-time assistant in 2008, and he began the season as a graduate assistant, moving up to a full-time role when Swinney relieved Bowden.
Is he perfect? No. Fans would love to see a win over South Carolina –Clemson hasn’t beaten the Gamecocks since 2008, a victory that sealed Swinney’s ascension into the full-time role – but the Tigers have largely fulfilled their potential under his watch.
Even if Florida State wins out and seals the Atlantic title, a second consecutive BCS bid is well within reach. With improvement and consistent 10-win seasons, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to think about the fall when it all comes together and another crystal trophy returns to Death Valley.
Life in Swinney’s world isn’t flawless, but Clemson fans are clearly better off with him than they were four years ago.