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Moments: How Clemson Came to be Crowned National Champions

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Like no other sport, it’s singular games and even singular plays in college football that shape seasons and histories.

CFP National Championship Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Think back to the 2012 UGA vs. Alabama SEC Championship game for a moment. On what could have been the game winning drive for UGA, a pass is tipped in the final seconds and an unintended UGA player catches the ball and is tackled in-bounds. The final seconds tick off the clock and Alabama moved on to plow through Notre Dame and win the National Championship. The Bulldogs were a mere play away from likely beating the Fighting Irish and becoming Champions themselves. Had that happened, Mark Richt may be Georgia royalty instead of leading Miami back into contention.

College football, more so than most sports, is wildly impacted by just a handful of huge plays and pivotal games. These moments become a part of programs’ stories (e.g., The Catch, The Catch II, The Fumblerooski, CJ Spiller’s Double Juke) and our lives.

Braden Gall recently articulated this point beautifully on his Cover Four Podcast. He argues that college football, unlike any other sport, has these spectacular “moments” that have a huge impact on the four-team playoff and long-lasting ripple effects across the football landscape. This is one of the reasons “every game matters” and the four team playoff is perfect.

Check out his podcast here:

This led me to think about the history arc which brought us to glory at 12:30 am on January 10th, 2017. It’s been a long journey, but as they say “the bitter makes the sweet sweeter.”

We start in 1982 when Clemson wins the Orange Bowl and becomes the 1981 National Champions:

Their unlikely title, earned with a win over Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers, proved Clemson can be great.

Fast-forward to 2000 and Alabama fires Mike DuBose and his coaching staff:

Alabama entered the year fresh off an SEC Championship in 1999. They were ranked #3 in the pre-season. After a mediocre 3-3 start, they finished just 3-8, leading to the dismissal of Coach DuBose and his entire staff, which included a young Dabo Swinney.

As if the failures on the field weren’t enough, the NCAA then began an investigation around the recruitment of Albert Means, a DL from Memphis. This cast a cloud around the former Alabama staffers, including Swinney. It would force Swinney out of coaching until Tommy Bowden gave him a call and brought him onto Clemson’s staff. Had the scandal not cast such a dark cloud, Coach Swinney may have been coaching at Notre Dame or elsewhere before Bowden reached out.

UAB Chooses Neil Callaway over Dabo Swinney as Head Coach:

There are moments in life when you think you know what you want, but after it falls through, you look back and are glad things turned out differently. This was one of those.

Dabo Swinney interviewed for the position of Head Coach at UAB following the 2006 football season. UAB chose Neil Callaway, a UGA assistant, instead. Callaway would be there for just five seasons, never make a bowl, and never become a head coach again. Meanwhile, big things were in store for Coach Swinney.

Former AD Terry Don Phillips has gone on record to say he already thought Dabo Swinney was special, but it would have likely been too challenging to bring him back as an outside hire in 2008 if he had left in 2006.

De Facto ACC Atlantic Championship Game in Death Valley Goes to Matt Ryan and Boston College after Harper’s pass to Aaron Kelly is dropped

After leading for much of the game, a busted coverage gave BC a late 20-17 lead. On Clemson’s last chance drive, Cullen Harper threw a Hail Mary to star receiver Aaron Kelly, but the pass fell through Kelly’s arms as he dove for the ball near the goal line. The program-changing win didn’t happen and rather than a united and exuberant fan base, Clemson fans were again disappointed. Despite a relatively solid season, the fan base was growing frustrated with Coach Bowden.

Tommy Bowden to Arkansas Squashed with Extension

Although the Tigers didn’t break through and fulfill the hopes and dreams of their hungry fan base, the administration wasn’t ready to move on from their head coach. Rumors of Coach Bowden going to Arkansas spurred an unlikely and somewhat unpopular extension.

Remember the Last Time the Demon Deacon Beat Clemson?

After a disappointing 3-2 start to the 2008 season — which started with a top 10 preseason ranking — the Tigers clung to a 7-6 lead when Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner delivered a TD pass with less than six minutes remaining. The Tigers offense couldn’t score and they fell to the Deacs, 7-13, on a Thursday night in Winston-Salem. It dropped the Tigers to 3-3 and 1-3 against FBS opponents. The following Monday, Bowden resigned.

Dabo Swinney’s Interim Tag Removed

Following a 1-2 start under new Interim Coach Swinney, the schedule presented the opportunity for a strong finish. A home win over Duke was followed by a 13-3 win over Virginia in which Clemson’s only TD pass came from CJ Spiller. The Tigers then returned home and earned a 31-14 win over the seven-win Gamecocks.

In the closing minutes of the game, fans loudly chanted the names: “Jaaaa-aaaames Davis,” C-J Spiiii-llller,” and “Daaaaa-bo Swiiii-nney.” With the fans swept up in sentiment and the budget stretched from the Bowden extension and subsequent buy-out, Terry Don Phillips named Dabo Swinney Clemson’s next Head Coach.

Clemson loses 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl to USF, forcing staff changes

Following Clemson’s first division crown in 2009, Coach Swinney’s experiment with sharing offensive duties with OC Billy Napier came to a crashing halt. Billy Napier was inexperienced – as was Dabo Swinney – and their mix of spread concepts and Power-I failed. Clemson’s offense was putrid and the Meineke Car Care Bowl loss was the last straw.

Dabo Swinney hired one of the fastest-rising names in football, Chad Morris from Tulsa, to be his new offensive coordinator. It was a risky hire due to Morris’s short tenure in college football (and much longer in the high school ranks), but he was able to immediately turn around Clemson’ offense and lead them to their first ACC title since 1991. He was also the lead recruiter for QB Deshaun Watson. If Clemson had won the Meineke Car Care Bowl, it’s conceivable and quite frankly likely Chad Morris never comes to Clemson and Deshaun Watson never comes to Clemson.

West Virginia Scored 70 on Kevin Steele’s Hapless Clemson Defense

Clemson brought Kevin Steele in from Alabama to run the defense in 2009. His aggressive style was just what Coach Swinney was looking for, however they failed to crack the S&P+ top 25 defenses in 2009 (26th), 2010 (27th), or 2011 (73rd).

Chad Morris’s offense was so good in 2011, they won the ACC and played in the Orange Bowl anyway, but in that Orange Bowl, they surrendered 70 points in an ugly loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers. It was so bad it essentially forced Kevin Steele out.

At that same time, Oklahoma brought Mike Stoops back as a defensive co-coordinator, adding a “co” to Brent Venables’ title. That opened the opportunity for Coach Swinney to add another elite coordinator to his staff. When Venables joined his staff, he had built one of the highest paid and most talented staffs in the nation. Had the Tigers won that Orange Bowl, or even if they had merely lost in respectable fashion, it’s quite possible Brent Venables would have never become a Tiger.

4th & 16th

By 2012, Clemson had taken major strides under Coach Swinney. The program was on the upswing and everyone was pulling in the same direction. They had won the division in 2009 and then took the next step in 2011 winning the conference with big wins against Auburn, Virginia Tech, and Florida State. The 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU, may be the breakthrough game though.

After Sammy Watkins was injured and carried off the field early in the game, the underdog Clemson Tigers were in trouble. Clemson’s defense refused to give in and QB Tajh Boyd had arguably the best football game of his life. Despite getting battered by an elite LSU defensive line, Boyd threw for 346 yards and two TDs. Trailing late and facing a 4th and 16 deep in their own territory, Tajh Boyd connected with Nuk Hopkins – in Hopkins’ final game as a Tiger – to move the chains and set-up the eventual game-winning field goal. The win made a huge statement that Clemson was ready not just to compete, but to defeat the nation’s elite programs and was ready to become one themselves.

NC State misses field goal to beat Clemson

The Tigers had a wild 2015 season that ended in National Championship game loss. It fueled them all off-season, but as the 2016 season started, they were surprisingly sluggish - maybe looking ahead to redemption a bit too soon. The lack of focus showed as the Tigers committed needless turnovers again and again against the Wolfpack. NC State took advantage and leaned on their star RB Matthew Dayes to milk the clock and bring them into field goal range for what should have been a game-winning chip shot.

As the field goal drifted right, the Tigers got new life. They’d win in overtime and save the one fluke loss the season would allow for later - they would need it.

Chris Blewitt hits a 48-yard field goal that gave Pitt the 43-42 upset over Clemson

The lone loss they could suffer and still head to the College football playoff happened when turnovers and a confused defense combined to allow the Panthers to score 43 points in Death Valley.

Fortunately, Michigan, Stanford, and Washington all lost on the same day and their path remained clear. The loss seemed to focus them as they began playing their best football after the ugly home loss. They’d destroy South Carolina to win the Palmetto Bowl, defeat Virginia Tech to win the ACC, and shutout Ohio State 31-0 to win the Fiesta Bowl. They earned a rematch with Alabama for the National Championship, and the loss to Pittsburgh was a necessary catalyst to get them to “playoff mode.”

Hunter Renfrow’s shoestring tackle keeps Tigers within 10 of Alabama

After falling behind 0-14 in the National Championship, the Tigers slowly began turning the tide. Trailing 7-14 early in third quarter, they were moving down the field when Ryan Anderson stripped the ball from RB Wayne Gallman. After picking it up, Anderson began rumbling towards the end zone with a caravan of Crimson behind him. Hunter Renfrow caught up to him from the side and put his shoulder under his feet to bring him down. The Tiger defense rose to the challenge and held the Crimson Tide to a field goal which gave the Tide a 10-point lead.

As the game progressed, the Clemson offense gradually wore down the talented Alabama defense. On the magical final drive it was Hunter Renfrow who hauled in the go-ahead touchdown that put Clemson up by four points - the exact difference between that third quarter fumble getting into the end zone and the field goal which it actually yielded.

Clemson’s National Championship was spectacular for so many reasons. One is the serendipitous manner in which Clemson found the perfect coach to make them a model program and eventually make them national champions.

I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Be sure to join us in the comments and share what you were thinking as this pivotal moments were happening.