The world of sports has been in a holding pattern for almost two months now, and we are all so starved for sports that all of the television networks have been re-airing old games on a daily basis. Recently, I’ve watched several of the classic college football games from the 80’s and 90’s between Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida Sate and Notre Dame. Those programs were the Clemsons, Alabamas and Ohio States of today, and it got me to wondering where the Clemson program now fits in the pantheon of college football after a 10-year run that has been unprecedented in the Tigers’ 124-year history. It has been an amazing and historic run for Dabo Swinney, and it feels like we’re only in the middle of it, as the coach just turned 50 years old and signed his first No.1 recruiting class—the first ever for Clemson as well—a few months ago in February.
To understand how far Dabo has taken the program in his 11-year tenure, it’s important to consider where the program fit in historically before Dabo took over. Clemson ranked around No.23 or No.24 among all-time football programs back then, just behind Auburn and neck-and-neck with Texas A&M. In fact, ESPN published a college football encyclopedia in the early 2000’s and ranked Clemson No.22, tied with Auburn, but that was before Auburn won a second national title in 2010. Ironically, Dabo and Clemson had a 17-point lead at Jordan-Hare that year before Auburn broke QB Kyle Parker’s ribs with a dirty hit after the whistle and went on to win the game in overtime. It was the closest Auburn came to losing that season, and it was the last season in which Dabo failed to win at least 10 games. At any rate, Clemson fell into that No.23 to No.24 range in terms of all-time wins, draft picks, bowls, etc. and having won one national title in 1981. For a small-town school like Clemson with an enrollment of 12,000 students, that was an extremely respectable position and stature. The Tigers’ all-time win percentage was under .600 before Dabo was named full-time head coach in 2009.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the Clemson program has ascended up the ranks faster perhaps than any program ever has in a 5 or 6-year period. A more recent ESPN ranking released in the past year had Clemson ranked No.17, just behind Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Florida State, and one could even argue that the Tigers should be ranked higher. I’ll get into that and where I would rank Clemson all-time in a bit. But first, why such a jump up the all-time ranks in such a short period of time? Well, what Dabo Swinney has accomplished is not only unprecedented in 124 years of Clemson Football, but some of it is unprecedented on a national scale. His 69-5 record over the last 5 years is the best in the history of the game. He was the first college coach ever (unless you count 1895 Penn) to go 15-0 in a season. His 2018 team was arguably the best of all time, boasting the No.1 defense while winning its final 10 games by 20 points or more. They finished by blowing out the top two programs of all time, 30-3 over Notre Dame and 44-16 over Alabama. Dabo has tripled the Tigers’ number of national titles over the last 4 years and played for two more. Despite losing in the National Championship last season, Clemson figures to be No.1 preseason for 2020, and when that happens, Dabo will join Notre Dame legend Frank Leahy and Nick Saban as the only coaches in history to have their teams ranked No.1 in six consecutive seasons. If the Tigers finish in the top 2 in 2020, as they should, Clemson will join Miami as the only programs ever to finish in the top 2 in 5 out of 6 years. If Clemson wins its 4th national title in 2020, as they are the overwhelming favorite to do so, it will join Alabama and Notre Dame—the two programs the Tigers stomped in the 2018 playoff—along with Miami as the only 4 programs to win 3 AP national titles in 5 years.
With all of this recent success, Clemson has sky-rocketed up the all-time ranks. The Tigers are now No.14 in all-time wins, and at the rate they are going, will likely pass Auburn for No.13 in the next 4-5 years. The Tigers now have a .618 all-time win percentage, which ranks 17th among Power Five schools. Again, at their current rate, they will likely pass Miami, Auburn and Florida to reach No.14 in the next few years. Clemson is currently 19th in weeks ranked No.1 in the AP Poll, but if the Tigers are ranked No.1 wire-to-wire in 2020 like I expect, they will jump all the way to No.13 in that category as well. As far as NFL first-rounders, another measure of program strength, Clemson is currently 17th all-time, but I expect the Tigers to pass Georgia for No.12 in the next 2-3 years. They should at worst be No.14 after 3-4 first-rounders in next year’s draft. Clemson is No.13 in bowl games played, one behind FSU and 2 behind Michigan.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, along with the Tigers’ 3 undisputed national titles, I rank currently rank Clemson No.13 all-time, ahead of Auburn, Florida, FSU and Miami, and that’s primarily because of total wins, national titles and trajectory. Auburn currently has 18 more wins than Clemson, but Clemson has one more national title, and I expect Clemson to pass Auburn in the win category over the next 3-4 years based on recent data. Not to mention that head-to-head Clemson has won 4 straight against its SEC counterpart. Clemson has already passed Auburn in NFL first-round picks as well. Clemson has the same number of national titles as Florida and FSU and two fewer than Miami, but Clemson has far more wins than all 3 programs. The Tigers have 23 more wins than Florida, 130 more than Miami and 208 more than FSU! National titles matter, but total wins do as well, which is why Clemson and several other programs rank well ahead of Minnesota despite 6 national titles for the Gophers between 1934 and 1960. It's also why I still have programs like Georgia and Tennessee ranked ahead of Clemson despite only having 3 combined AP national titles, the same number as Clemson. Add another national championship trophy or two to the Clemson trophy case, however, and I would move the Tigers ahead of Georgia and Tennessee.
Dabo’s record as a head coach is 130-31, which is the highest win percentage among active coaches—higher than Nick Saban—and 14th all-time. If Dabo goes 69-5 in the next 5 years like he has in the last 5, he will be 4th all-time, behind Knute Rockney, Frank Leahy and Urban Meyer, who Dabo was 2-0 against. In fact, Dabo handed Meyer his only two bowl losses and his only career shutout! Dabo predicted that the 2010’s would be the best decade ever for Clemson Football, and he was dead right. As the 125th season of Clemson Football approaches, Dabo recently said that he wants the 2020’s to be the best decade in the history of college football, and it’s hard to doubt him after what he’s done. If he accomplishes that goal as well, Clemson will easily be a top-10 all-time football program among the elite blue bloods, and Dabo Swinney will be heralded as the greatest college football coach of all time.
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