Dabo Swinney, It’s OK to Act Like You’ve Never Been There Before; But You Should Act Like You’ll Be Back
I gained a lot of respect for Dabo Swinney during the playoff. I think a lot of people did. I’ve been pretty “meh” on the guy in general. The Clemsoning meme was always pretty good, but as a Georgia fan I know all about missed should-be-easy opportunities. So in that regard, I thought he was probably a better coach than the nation assumed. But I wouldn’t have classified him as a great coach. The fact remains that he lost an average of nearly four games per year over his first six full seasons (2009-2014, which excludes a 4-3 opening campaign in 2008). I thought he benefitted from a weak conference/division with a diminishing Virginia Tech program and rebuilding projects at Florida State and Miami. Obviously, Florida State is fully “back” and Miami and Virginia Tech may be headed there. But there’s something to be said for a coach who can lose five games in a season but still win his division (which Swinney did in 2009). The guy won his conference despite losing four total games in 2011.
So heading into 2016, the 2015 season seemed like it might have been an outlier. No matter how you slice it, last season stood out. Consider Dabo’s season win totals: 9, 6, 10, 11, 11, 11, 10, 14. That last number seems to pop. How about final rankings (Coaches Poll)? Unranked, Unranked, 22, 9, 7, 15, 2. Again, that second-place ranking kind of stands out.
But at the same time I felt all season long that Clemson was deserving of the playoff and on the shortlist of teams capable of beating Alabama for two very related reasons:
- They had almost beaten Alabama in last year’s national championship game*.
- Deshaun Watson is the best player in college football.
Notably, I didn’t give Dabo Swinney much credit for either of the points above. Sure he was the head coach and he got Watson on campus and put coaches in place to develop his talent and built a roster around him. But I didn’t give the guy that much credit. But credit is due now.
You’ll see the asterisk next to point number one above. And I think this is as good a place as any to remind everyone of that game. We’ve apparently all moved on from how epic last year’s national championship game was. Everyone is talking about Monday’s game and comparing it to the iconic Texas/USC BCS National Championship as the greatest title bout in modern college football history. I guess we’ve re-written or forgotten Alabama’s 45-40 win over Clemson last year. There were eight lead changes in that game:
- Bama leads 7-0.
- Clemson ties 7-7.
- Clemson leads 14-7.
- Bama ties 14-14.
- Bama leads 21-14 then 21-17.
- Clemson leads 24-21.
- Bama ties 24-24.
- Bama gains 31-24 lead and doesn’t relinquish it.
And there was no shortage of individual accomplishments:
- Deshaun Watson racked up 478 yards of offense and four scores.
- Jake Coker threw for 335 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs on 25 attempts.
- Four Clemson Tigers registered more than 60 yards receiving (Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett, Hunter Renfrow, Charone Peake).
- Derek Henry ran for 158 yards and three scores.
- O.J. Howard logged five catched for 208(!!!) yards and two TDs.
- Kenyan Drake had a 95 yard kickoff return for a TD.
That game was an all-time classic. But now that we have a newer version with an underdog victory and a revenge story, that game is forgotten. Now it’s Monday’s game vs. all the others. A 45-40 championship game is an “also ran” after a 35-31 championship game, I suppose.
Along those lines, my fear here is that recency bias and revisionist history will change the narrative of Clemson’s dramatic win over Alabama on January 9, 2017. The narrative may soon be that Deshaun Watson (again, the best player in the country by my estimation) came out and rolled the tide for 463 yards of offense and four touchdowns. The narrative may soon be shortened to “Alabama didn’t have an answer for Deshaun Watson.”
That storyline is an injustice to Watson, however. The reality is nobody has really had an answer for Deshaun Watson over the last two seasons. Sure, he racked up 941 yards of offense and eight scores against Alabama in sequential championship games. But he’s accounted for 10,431 yards of offense and 97 touchdowns over the past two seasons. This is as much about Deshaun flourishing as it is about Alabama struggling.
And that ties in to another potential injustice: a lack of credit for Dabo Swinney. People may forget Deshaun Watson’s early-game struggles. They may rightfully be overshadowed by the sum of his four quarters. But we shouldn’t forget what Dabo Swinney and his staff did for the entirety of the game.
Offensively, Clemson ran 97 plays on Monday night. 57 passes. 42 rushes. That’s nearly 23% more plays than the second most prolific play-runner Alabama faced all year—Ole Miss with 79 total plays. The Crimson Tide defense wore down. That go-go-go offensive game plan, simple and perhaps obvious, was well-executed throughout the contest even when the Tigers weren’t scoring points. Clemson had 19 plays of offense in the first quarter despite kicking off to start the game and committing a turnover. The Tigers then reeled off more than 25 offensive plays in each of the game’s final three quarters.
Defensively, the Tigers remained tough even as Alabama mounted an early lead and things seemed destined to get out of hand. After taking a 14-0 edge in the game’s first 20 minutes, Alabama was held without a touchdown for nearly 25 minutes of game time.
Swinney kept his squad tuned-in even as Alabama took a seemingly insurmountable lead. He stuck with his game plan, trusted the game plan and put his team in position to win the game. Late in the contest, he trusted his play-makers, showed patience even as some (myself included) panicked about clock management and left the Crimson Tide reeling from a gut punch with just one second remaining (is that familiar, Bama fans?).
I mention all this (the 900 words above) to say simply: I’ve got no problem with Dabo Swinney acting like he’s never been here before. He hasn’t been here before. And a lot of people, including me, didn’t expect him to be here. The dude was in elementary school the last time Clemson won a Natty. His name is Dabo for goodness sake. Dabo’s don’t get nice things. Dabo’s don’t get respect. And yet, here he is.
I gained enough appreciation for Dabo Swinney during the playoff that I’m willing to overlook post-game comments like:
And to see my guys fight, just believe me. I told them tonight, I told them that the difference in the game was going to be love. It’s been my word. My word all year’s been love. And I said, “Tonight we’re going to win it because we love each other. We’re going to love each other.”
The difference in the game was
Pick Plays Deshaun Watson Mike Williams’ recovery from multiple headshots Philanderer Lane Kiffin being replaced by recovering drunkard Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator a week before the national championship game Bo Scarbrough breaking his leg with 17 minutes to play love.
I can look past those comments because I recognize that Dabo Swinney is a better coach than I thought and I appreciate that he’s never been here before.
But going on the offensive against a sports talk radio show host like Colin Cowherd in your post-championship presser? Come on, dude. What is that? Cowherd’s certainly not above reproach. But you just won a national championship and in your press conference you’re doing this?
What was that? “I’m not a fraud, you’re a fraud. You didn’t do your homework. Print that, media. You guys only had us ranked second in the nation in the preseason behind Alabama. And guess what, we might have been the second-best team in the country with two seconds left on the clock, but with one second left and with no seconds left we were the best. You might be a fraud too. Let’s talk about all the people who didn’t see that final drive coming. I’m gonna name names while these two gentlemen flank me and look confused. We’ll celebrate tomorrow. Tonight, we name names because what’s the point of being a champion if you can’t be petty?”
I’m not calling Dabo Swinney a fraud. Colin Cowherd did that. But I will say that Dabo Swinney looks unbelievably desperate in the exact moment at which he should be at his career’s pinnacle of comfort and confidence. He just won the national championship and he looks shaken by a radio guy.
Dabo, you’re the most desperate national champion in the history of college football. You gonna call me out on that next time you win the big one?
Probably not. Because there won’t be a next time.
That’s all I got/