Dabo Swinney one win from leading Clemson to blue blood status
Dabo Swinney is no stranger to beating future Hall of Fame coaches, but his biggest challenge awaits him when Clemson meets Nick Saban and Alabama in a rematch of last year’s National Championship Game on Monday night.Dabo Swinney has won 88 games since taking over on an interim basis for Tommy Bowden during the 2008 season. When he was named the full-time head coach, it was met with a great deal of criticism and second-guessing considering he had zero head coaching experience and was only a coordinator for six weeks.Fast forward to January 9, 2017 and Swinney is one win away from the biggest in program history, a win that can see them join college football royalty and a win that can see Swinney cement himself as a certified Giant Slayer with a win against Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.A lot has happened since Swinney took over for Bowden, including the introduction of the Tiger Walk, three ACC titles, two Orange Bowls and 33 players selected in the NFL Draft. The biggest sign of Clemson’s growth under Swinney is a series of bowl wins against some of the best coaches in the country. Those flashpoints serve as benchmarks for Clemson’s rise from mid-tier ACC team to among the blue bloods of college football.2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl vs Les Miles/LSUSwinney was coming off his best season at Clemson when the Tigers went 10-4, won the ACC and played in the Orange Bowl to finish the season ranked No. 22 in the Coaches and AP Poll. Despite a 70-33 loss to West Virginia and Rich Rodriguez in the Orange Bowl, Clemson was building something special under Swinney’s watch and headed into the 2012 season with a great deal of momentum and promise.With quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, Clemson boasted one of the best offenses in the country with offensive coordinator Chad Morris calling plays. Clemson was on the verge of going from a very good program to a great program this year but couldn’t get past Jimbo Fisher and his Florida State Seminoles. The Noles were at the start of their three-year run of ACC dominance but Swinney kept Clemson on track toward joining them as equals. He knew it wouldn’t be an overnight fix but Clemson needed wins to legitimize themselves among the nation’s elite.That opportunity came in the postseason when Clemson was matched up against Les Miles and his LSU Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. This is not your normal prestigious bowl game but it provided an opportunity for Swinney and Clemson to take their first collective step toward elite status.LSU already achieved that with Miles carrying on Nick Saban’s legacy at LSU and added a national championship of his own and an appearance in another. LSU was a known commodity while Clemson was viewed as more of an upstart. LSU boasted its best offense in decades with Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr and was supposed to win.Swinney and Clemson had other plans.LSU had the game in hand with a 24-13 lead headed into the fourth quarter but the final 15 minutes of this game served as the springboard for Swinney and his program. Clemson chipped away with a Chandler Catanzaro field goal to make it an eight-point game. The defense held LSU to one yard of offense in the fourth quarter to give Boyd, Hopkins, and the offense a chance. The two hooked up on a 12-yard touchdown pass but the two-point try was unsuccessful so they trailed 24-22 with 2;47 left in the game. Thanks to some classic clock mismanagement by Les Miles, LSU couldn’t run out the clock and Clemson had a shot to make history with 1:39 remaining.Facing a fourth and 16 from their own 14-yard line, Boyd found Hopkins who made a catch that would foreshadow the superstardom that would happen in the NFL to pick up the first down on a 26-yard gain and keep them alive. A few plays later, Catanzaro drilled the game-winning 37-yard field goal as time expired. Swinney beat a coach with a national championship on his resume and it was the start of a trend.2014 Orange Bowl vs Urban Meyer/Ohio StateThe next year saw Clemson fall to Florida State who had the Heisman winner and ended up winning the BCS National Championship. In the midst of Florida State’s mini-dynasty, Clemson was right on their heels. Clemson had their second straight 11-win season and saw Swinney take the second step on the ladder of becoming one of the best coaches in the country.Clemson earned a berth in the Orange Bowl, the second of Swinney’s tenure, as the Tigers played Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes. This was the first Orange Bowl appearance for the Big Ten team since 1977 after they lost a shot at the national title with a loss to Michigan State.Meyer only lost one game in his first two years at Ohio State and already claimed two national titles on his resume. He was the second most accomplished head coach in college football behind Saban. A true heavyweight in the coaching profession and an intimidating presence on the sideline for some head coached. Swinney more than held his own against the future Hall of Fame coach and we saw one of the best Orange Bowls in recent memory.The game saw plenty of fireworks early with Boyd and Braxton Miller scoring on long runs to open the first quarter. Clemson led 20-9 early in the second quarter but Ohio State scored three unanswered touchdowns to regain momentum and what looked like an impressive win.This could have been a time when Clemson would have folded in the past and let the game slip away. It was something that happened under Swinney’s watch before, but he didn’t let it happen that night inside Sun Life Stadium.Just as Clemson closed out the Chick-fil-A bowl one year earlier, the Tigers would do the same against Meyer and his Buckeyes. It only took 2:15 for Clemson to get back-to-back scores from Watkins and Martavis Bryant to finish the third quarter with a flurry to retake the lead at 34-29 and enter the fourth quarter with momentum. Not even a Buckeye receiving touchdown from Carlos Hyde would deter Clemson in the fourth. The defense, which has been overshadowed by the record-breaking offense, came up clutch to deliver the win.Bashaud Breeland forced a fumble of Miller and the Tigers recovered at Ohio State’s 47-yard-line with 3:12 remaining. Unable to kill the clock, as Boyd threw an interception with 1:27 left and Ohio State had another chance to mount a comeback and college football fans across the country wondered if Clemson could stop shooting themselves in the foot. Those fears were short-lived as Miller was intercepted two plays later and Clemson ran out the clock.Swinney now had two bowl wins in a row over a national championship-winning head coach, an Orange Bowl win and a No. 7 and No. 8 ranking in the Coaches and AP Polls, the highest in his tenure.2014 Russell Athletic Bowl vs Bob Stoops/OklahomaClemson was in a transitional phase to open the 2014 season after losing Boyd to graduation and Watkins and Bryant to the NFL Draft. As a result, Clemson dropped their opener to the No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs and two weeks later lost at No. 1 Florida State. at 1-2, Clemson could have folded and been resigned to the fact that they likely wouldn’t win the ACC again this year and the offense could be a work in progress. Arguably Swinney’s best motivational job took effect here when he rallied his team, made a quarterback change to insert prized freshman recruit Deshaun Watson under center for his first career start against the North Carolina Tar Heels.