Clemson's 2008 football season was a tumultuous one. The Tigers came into the year with the #9 ranking in the AP Poll and reasonable optimism following a solid year that saw them win nine games and fall just one play short of their first ever ACC Championship Game berth.
Of course, we know those expectations were not met. Clemson lost three of their first four against Div. 1 opponents: a blowout to Alabama in the opener, a three-point home loss against a Maryland team that had already lost at Middle Tennessee State, and then the final straw in Winston-Salem. The Monday following that Thursday night loss to Wake Forest we learned that Tommy Bowden had "stepped down."
Wide Receivers Coach, Dabo Swinney, took over as interim head coach and steadied the ship enough to finish 4-2 down the stretch. With the 4th of those wins coming at the expense of South Carolina, it was good enough to get his interim title removed (IRONY!).
Enter stage: Tajh Boyd.
Tajh Boyd was just graduating from high school that December as Clemson was preparing for a Gator Bowl against Nebraska. Clemson would lose that Gator Bowl, leaving Swinney to hit the recruiting trail with little pedigree and little to sell but his vision for special things on the horizon. Tajh Boyd believed in that vision, believed in Coach Swinney, and believed in Clemson. The Hampton, Virginia native agreed to join Dabo Swinney's first recruiting class, which would come to be known as the "Dandy Dozen."
Boyd was rated as a five-star recruit by Scout.com which noted "Boyd is a leader and a winner. He is one of those guys that makes everyone around him better." He met and even exceeded that description by not only making his teammates better, but making the entire program better for the foreseeable future. Clemson is not the same program that Tajh Boyd joined in 2009. Great players come and go, but rarely is their impact felt years after they are gone. Because of Boyd--as well as the rest of the Dandy Dozen and the coaching staff--the foundation is as strong as it's been since the Danny Ford days.
In his first year as a Clemson Tiger he redshirted as he worked to recover from a high school knee injury which he played through during his senior year. Meanwhile Kyle Parker was taking over from Cullen Harper. Parker guided the Tigers to their first ever ACC Atlantic Division that season and the "Dandy Dozen" quickly got a glimpse at those championships Dabo Swinney was envisioning.
During the offseason, Kyle Parker turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in contract negotiations with the Colorado Rockies to return for one more year behind the helm as Clemson's starting QB. Tajh Boyd would be his back-up for another year. Unfortunately, that season was a miserable endeavor, a year in which Dabo Swinney told fans "don't focus on results, you'll just be miserable." Clemson lost to the eventual National Champion Auburn Tigers in overtime and Kyle Parker sustained a rib/back injury that the staff withheld from public notice. Neither he nor the team was the same for the rest of the season (and Auburn was only game #3). They'd accept an invitation to the Meineke Car Care Bowl (then in Charlotte) against USF. In front of a mostly Orange crowd, Clemson was outplayed and only led for a grand total of 39 seconds. In the latter stages of the game, Tajh Boyd replaced Kyle Parker, receiving his first bit of meaningful playing time. He wasn't amazing, but he kept fighting and brought Clemson within five, the margin by which they'd eventually fall, 31-26. I was on hand that cold, demoralizing day, and I remember remarking--somewhere between all the cursing and lamenting--that "at least that new QB looked fairly promising."
Within a week, Dabo Swinney had to fire OC Billy Napier and began searching for a replacement. With plans to build his program around the collegiate equivalent to a franchise QB, Swinney included Tajh Boyd in the interview process. Of course, we know that processes ended on Chad Morris who just won the Assistant Coach of the Year Award. What would happen over the next three years is nothing short of a complete rejuvenation of a football program--specifically on the offensive side of the ball--whose glory days were 20 years prior.
In his first season at starting quarterback, Tajh Boyd and Clemson set out on what Swinney dubbed the "Shock the World Tour." Clemson started 8-0 and with three wins against ranked opponents. Unfortunately, Boyd would face his first dose of adversity late in the year as Clemson lost three of four (GT, NCSU, SCar) to close the season. They managed to hang onto the Atlantic Division and would head to Charlotte as underdogs to a Virginia Tech team playing their best football of the season. In that ACC Championship Game, Clemson scored 38 points, Tajh Boyd was name ACCCG MVP, and Clemson captured the conference championship for the first time since 1991.
Oranges were being thrown on the field in Charlotte that night as Clemson celebrated a watershed moment for the program. Those oranges though now seem bitter as we remember a month later Clemson was blown out by West Virginia in Miami. In his first season as the starter, Boyd broke Charlie Whitehurst's single-season passing record, but there was more foundation to be laid and more work to be done.
In 2012, his second season as the starter, he continued to improve. His completion percentage jumped by 7.5 percentage points and he tallied 46 total touchdowns. They weren't perfect, as they failed to hang onto halftime leads against both FSU and SCar. The loss to SCar was especially painful, as it was at home and marked the 4th straight loss to the Gamecocks. Clemson would finish 10-2, and though they didn't qualify for a Conference Championship game or a BCS Bowl the consistency was something new for the program. Clemson won all 10 games in which they were heavily favored, something media pundits mocked Clemson for failing to do in the past. The season was capped with one of the greatest performances from a Clemson QB in memory.
In the 2012 Chick-Fil-a Bowl vs. LSU, Boyd threw for 339 yards, despite getting knocked around by one of the most talented defensive lines in college football. When he wasn't getting hit as he threw, he was being hit after one of his 29 carries. He kept getting up and kept fighting. Needing a game winning drive at the end of the game, Tajh Boyd led the Tigers down the field and set up Chandler Catanzaro in position to convert for the game winning field goal. In the end, Clemson defeated an elite team from the elite conference, and people began to believe in Clemson.
After that win, Boyd walked off the Georgia Dome turf thinking it would be his last game as a Clemson Tiger, but there's something in those hills, that makes it hard to leave Clemson. He decided to return for his redshirt senior season, and one last go round.
In his final season, Clemson won every game in which they were favored en route to finishing the regular season 10-2 and earning a bid to the Orange Bowl (the program's fifth OB berth). Clemson has now won 18 straight games against unranked opponents by double-digits. Obviously, we just experienced this season, and are in no need of a recap. It should be noted that Tajh Boyd, though far from perfect, was record setting. Boyd set the all-time ACC record for touchdown responsibility and broke Philip Rivers' record for TD passes with one fewer season as a starter.
Tajh is not without fault. Here at STS, the boys hammered him early on for poor fundamentals (as they did Parker). To his credit, those issues--specifically footwork and arm release position--improved as Boyd matured at Clemson. Boyd has also done a better job maintaining his weight. We all remember a lean quarterback who turned into the Goodyear Tajh during the 2011 season, but he did a much better job maintaining weight his junior and senior seasons. Boyd still has issues locking onto a receiver and some insecurity in the pocket, but he's had those issues his whole career. Those items are the ones that most Clemson fans associate with Boyd's failures and were present throughout his career.
Of course, the elephant in the room is Boyd's performance in the big games. Tajh fell apart several times against South Carolina and was also clearly rattled earlier this year against the Florida State Seminoles. I'll concede that the offensive line hasn't been incredible. However, the level of play we saw against LSU and Georgia--many will also point out Auburn on two occasions--was not present his entire career and was particularly lacking against the Gamecocks.
In spite of the struggles mentioned above, he heads into the Discover Orange Bowl vs. Ohio State with a chance to tie Rodney Williams as Clemson's all-time winningest QB. A victory would give Clemson 11 wins and a tremendous postseason showing in consecutive seasons. It would also make Tajh Boyd one of just three Clemson QBs to ever win an Orange Bowl (Billy Hair-1950, Homer Jordan-1981) and allow him to leave on a high note. He didn't win three consecutive ACC titles like the aforementioned Williams, but he shattered dozens of Charlie Whitehurst's records and is easily one of the best quarterbacks Clemson has ever seen. (Top five Clemson QB list)
There are new challenges ahead: A resurgent Florida State, a relevant South Carolina, and a facilities arms race just to name a few. As Tajh Boyd leaves, it's next man up for Clemson. Chad Kelly is a good fit for the offense and Cole Stoudt appears solid and reliable. Many are hoping Deshaun Watson, the top QB in this year's recruiting class, will be the next great Clemson QB. I'm definitely hoping just that about Watson, but also realize that nothing is certain. We only have one more game with Boyd at the helm. Tajh received his fair share of criticism but will be very difficult to replace. We look forward to one last game with him under center then Clemson must replace its leader and record-breaker.
Hopefully we use this period with Tajh at QB as a springboard for great things ahead. If that is the case, we will look back and see that much of it is possible because of the foundation Tajh helped to lay. For that, we thank Tajh Boyd, our program revitalizing quarterback.