Dabo Swinney's 2014 Clemson Tigers completed a 10-3 season on the gridiron in dominant fashion with a 40-6 rout of a traditional power, the Oklahoma Sooners, in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Tigers finished the year at #15 in the final polls (AP & Coaches), and sported the nation's best overall defense for the first time since 1990, as Brent Venables' boys proved equally adept all season at grounding aerial assaults (#2: 157.4 passing yds/game) and stifling ground attacks (#5: 103.4 rushing yds/game) en route to the number one overall ranking (260.8 total yds/game). They also led the nation in fewest yards-per-play allowed (4.03), pass efficiency defense (98.3), third down defense (27.4%), tackles for loss (131), tackles-for-loss per game (10.1), yardage on tackles-for-loss (553), sack yardage (356), yards per pass (5.3), first downs allowed per game (14.2), fewest plays of ten yards or more allowed (126), and scoring defense versus FBS teams with a winning record (18.6 pts/game), while finishing third in overall scoring defense (16.7 points/game). And despite offensive struggles all season, mainly due to inconsistencies on the line along with youthful growing pains and key injuries at the skill positions, in the final two games the Tigers found their stride on that side of the ball, putting up 67 points (minus BB's interception return for a touchdown) and amassing nearly 900 yards from scrimmage in the two blowout wins. On the year, the Tigers offense ranked 39th in passing (261.8 yds/game), 91st in rushing (146.5 yds/game), and 54th in scoring (30.8 points/game).
In the 118-year history of Clemson Tigers football, 2014 marks just the eleventh season of ten or more wins, and the #15 final ranking is only the 29th time the Tigers have finished a season ranked in at least one of the major polls, which began with the inaugural Associated Press poll in 1936, to which the official Coaches poll was added beginning in 1950, though coaches across the country were unofficially polled prior to that date. The full list of Tiger football teams to finish nationally ranked according to the Associated Press, the coaches, or both are as follows: 1939; 1948; 1950; 1951; 1956; 1957; 1958; 1959; 1977; 1978; 1981; 1982; 1983; 1986; 1987; 1988; 1989; 1990; 1991; 1993; 2000; 2003; 2005; 2007; 2009; 2011; 2012; 2013; 2014.
Prior to 1970, Clemson football teams never played more than eleven games in any one season, and typically played between eight and ten regular season games, with an eleventh game only coming in the form of a relatively rare postseason bowl trip. Therefore, prior to 1970, the standard of a "ten-win season" held little water, as it essentially demanded an undefeated campaign. Scheduling became more standardized after 1970, however, and most teams began playing eleven-game regular season schedules, rendering the ten-win mark an important benchmark of success. Even with today's standard 12-game regular season schedule, conference championship games, and plethora of bowl games, the ten-win threshold remains a solid indicator of collegiate gridiron prowess.
All of this does not mean, however, that prior to the initial polls in 1936, or the advent of the standard eleven-game schedule in 1970, there were not comparable teams and seasons to those later heralded "ten-win" campaigns and nationally ranked seasons. John Heisman's 1900 Tiger team went 6-0 and outscored the opposition 222-10, a dominant season by any standard. During his four seasons in Tigertown, Heisman never lost more than one game, but had two seasons with a loss and a tie, going 3-1-1 in 1901, 6-1-0 in 1902, and 4-1-1 in 1903 before departing for the bright lights of Atlanta and a bigger pay check from GA Tech in 1904. Any of Heisman's four seasons in orange therefore deserve the distinction of dominant seasons, despite the lower win totals, as his teams posted an 83.3 winning percentage over the four-year span.
Aside from Heisman's historic run, however, dominant seasons like the one just completed in 2014 constitute the rarefied air of Clemson football history, and such consistent dominance over multiple years has proven even more elusive. Jess Neely's final Tiger squad in 1939 went 9-1-0 and defeated national power Boston College 6-3 in the Cotton Bowl Classic to claim the program's first bowl victory in its inaugural bowl invitation and finish #12 in the polls. Led by All-American and Clemson Hall-of-Famer Banks McFadden, that '39 team, season, and bowl victory are generally credited with placing Clemson football on the map of big-time college football.
Neely departed for Rice University in Houston, TX prior to the 1940 season, but his understudy Frank Howard assumed command of the Tiger gridders for the '40 season; a post he would retain until his retirement following the 1969 campaign.
Howard's legendary career would cement Clemson's place among the most iconic football programs, certainly in the southeast, and arguably throughout the nation. His 1948 team went 11-0 and finished #11 in the polls after defeating Missouri 24-23 in the Gator Bowl to cap the program's second undefeated season and establish a record for wins in a single season that would not be equaled until 1978 and would not be bested until 1981.
The 1950 Tiger team proved equally historic, compiling a 9-0-1 record that included a thrilling 15-14 Orange Bowl victory over the nationally-acclaimed Miami Hurricanes, good enough to finish #10 in the AP and #12 in the Coaches polls.
Both the 1948 and 1950 undefeated teams were lead by an explosive single-wing attack, paced by a stable of talented backs that included the likes of:
Cone, Mathews, and Calvert were integral to both undefeated campaigns in 1948 and 1950, while Hair burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 1950 and continued to star for the next two seasons.
Frank Howard's last of six bowl teams came in 1959, when his Tigers secured a 9-2-0 season and #11 national ranking with a 23-7 Bluebonnet Bowl victory over Texas Christian. The bowl win and final ranking would prove to be the last for the Tiger program until....
Charley Pell's 1978 Tigers rolled to a 10-1 regular season, and then defeated Woody Hayes and his Ohio State Buckeyes 17-15 with newly appointed head coach Danny Ford in the Gator Bowl to finish off a dominant 11-1-0 season at #6 in the AP and #7 in the Coaches polls. The year saw a football program that had been floundering in the depths of obscurity for nearly two decades resurface to national prominence.
Pell parlayed his brief stint of success with the Tigers (18-4-1 in two seasons) into an ill-fated head-coaching position with the Florida Gators prior to the bowl game. His departure enabled Clemson to promote a young assistant who would preside over the golden age of Clemson Tigers football-Danny Ford.
Just three years after gaining his first career win over Woody Hayes in the Gator Bowl, Ford directed the greatest season in Clemson history: a perfect 12-0-0 record that culminated with the 22-15 Orange Bowl victory over Tom Osborne's Nebraska Cornhuskers to secure the 1981 National Championship (Unanimous #1).
Danny Ford's final three seasons in Tigertown evinced the consistent dominance for which his program was revered (and is still celebrated), finishing 10-2 each year, each including a bowl victory over a national power. The 10-2 1987 (#12 AP/#10 Coaches) squad defeated Joe Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions 35-10 in the Florida Citrus Bowl, a defeat that still ranks as Paterno's worst bowl loss. The 10-2 1988 (#9 AP/#8 Coaches) team defeated Barry Switzer and the Oklahoma Sooners 13-6 in the Florida Citrus Bowl, prompting Switzer to resign amid a storm of recruiting violations and controversy that plagued the Sooner program well into the next decade. The 10-2 1989 (#12 AP/#11 Coaches) Tigers toppled Don Nehlen's West Virginia Mountaineers 27-7 in the Gator Bowl. The Mountaineers, led by Heisman candidate QB Major Harris, had lost the national championship to Lou Holtz and Notre Dame just the year before.
Ford would resign as head coach of the Tigers following the 1989 season amid allegations of recruiting violations, to be replaced by Ken Hatfield.
Hatfield's first team in 1990 fielded arguably (now) the best defense in Clemson history en route to a fourth consecutive 10-2 campaign (#9 AP/Coaches) that ended with a resounding 30-0 defeat of John Mackovic and the Illinois Illini in the Hall of Fame Bowl. It stood as the largest margin of victory in a bowl game until the 40-6 stomping of the Sooners in 2014, and capped the only previous run of four consecutive ten-win seasons until...the 2014 season.
The most recent run of success under current head coach Dabo Swinney mirrors that late eighties/early nineties run in many ways. The Tigers have reeled off four consecutive ten-win seasons (2011: 10-4; 2012: 11-2; 2013: 11-2; 2014: 10-3) and have won three consecutive bowl games over national powers (2012 Peach Bowl: 25-24 over Les Miles and LSU; 2014 Orange Bowl: 40-35 over Urban Meyer and Ohio State; 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl: 40-6 over Bob Stoops and Oklahoma). They have also finished each of the last four seasons ranked in the final polls (#22 AP/Coaches in 2011; #11 AP/#9 Coaches in 2012; #8 AP/#7 Coaches in 2013; #15 AP/#15 Coaches in 2014), the longest such streak since a record six straight from 1986-1991. Even Boulware's forty-seven-yard interception return for a touchdown was the Tigers' first in a bowl game since...you guessed it, the 1991 Hall of Fame Bowl, when DB Arlington Nunn took one thirty-four yards to pay dirt.
But the current run is also unprecedented in that the forty-two wins are the most ever for the program over a four year span. And, all signs point to bigger and better things moving forward. Boasting a roster already full of talent, a consensus top-five incoming recruiting class, and a stable coaching staff comprised of youthful innovation and battle-tested wisdom, the future indeed burns bright for the Clemson program. With perhaps the best quarterback prospect in program history, a stable of young and talented running backs, a full squadron of explosive wideouts, a bevy of talented tight ends, and a solid mix of improving experience soon to be combined with an injection of young studs on the offensive line, the "Clemson Offense" should be up to its explosive standards of recent years yet again in 2015 and beyond.
The defense, meanwhile, loses considerable talent and experience, but returns proven depth chomping at the bit for "their time." The two-deep in 2015 will be talented and experienced yet again at all three levels, and the annual haul of talent on the recruiting trail promises a continuance of stout Tiger defenses for years to come.
So as good as this current run has been, greater things loom on the not-so-distant horizon. I for one cannot wait to watch it unfold. Start the 2015 Hill Watch!