Clemson turns it around, storms into Orange Bowl

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t even watch the final minute and a half of his team’s first conference championship in 20 years. Not a single play. He was too busy seeking out each and every assistant coach on his sideline for a quick bear hug.

Dabo Swinney has Clemson in the Orange Bowl just four months removed from facing questions about his job security.
(Getty Images)

Behind him, 35,000 Clemson fans chanted “Dab-O” and hurled oranges down toward the Bank of America Stadium turf.

The scene as Clemson’s 38-10 clubbing of Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game came to a close Saturday night would have been unimaginable four months ago.

Take a trip back to a muggy July day in Pinehurst, N.C. Reporters at the annual ACC preseason media gathering peppered Swinney with questions about his job stability. He was entering just his third full season as coach – taking over on an interim basis when Tommy Bowden was pushed out midway through the 2008 season – and had had early success. The interim label disappeared after he salvaged the 2008 season, winning four of the last five regular-season outings.

A division title followed in 2009, but a disastrous 6-7 mark last season ignited doubts that Swinney could win a league that had become, let’s be honest, awfully mediocre.

“Back away from the ledge,” Swinney instructed fans, via reporters, that July day. “Let the coaches do their job. I think we’re on the verge of greatness at Clemson, in the near future.”

Greatness at Clemson? Great players, sure. Greatness? Good one, Dabo.

But Saturday, Clemson looked great. Better than great. The Tigers dismantled the No. 5 Hokies, the hottest team outside Baton Rouge (albeit a hot streak built on a lousy schedule), as Clemson racked up 457 total yards to punch its ticket to the Orange Bowl. It’s the Tigers’ first trip to a BCS-level bowl since the 1981 season – when they won their only national title in the Orange Bowl.

And, more than anything, Clemson perhaps offered a glimpse into the future.

“Next year we’re going after the national title,” said wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Clemson’s super freshman. “Alabama, LSU, anybody that’s contenders, we can go out and compete [with] next year. We’re going to be actually better next year.”

Rolling your eyes?

Based on the past, that reaction is understandable.

[Recap: Clemson 38, Virginia Tech 10]

Everyone knows the deal with Clemson. You watch the Tigers drill someone on a sunny September afternoon in Death Valley (come to think of it, isn’t every game at Clemson blindingly sunny?) and they look like an NFL farm team. Blazingly fast. Huge, physical D-linemen. They can hit. They have those cool uniforms and they pat that rock on the way to the field, and you think, “Dang, Clemson is going to be really tough this season.”

Then late November rolls around and you realize Clemson is 7-5.

How’s that possible?

No surprise, then, at the moment this season when people began saying this Clemson team wasn’t a typical Clemson team, it suddenly became a typical Clemson team again.

An 8-0 start pushed the Tigers to No. 6 in the polls, so, naturally, as the nation began to notice, Clemson dropped three of its final four games, all by double digits.

That’s why Virginia Tech, a team Clemson beat on the road by 20 points two months ago, was favored by a touchdown heading into Saturday’s title game.

“We’ve been pretty ugly the last few weeks,” Swinney said. “Tonight, we created turnovers and took care of the ball. Our quarterback showed back up. I told them we’ve been like a team with the flu and we got a penicillin shot.”

[Wetzel: SEC reaps reward of rejected playoff plan]

Tajh Boyd snapped out of his slump, throwing three touchdown passes and running for another.
(US Presswire)

Considering the stage, the stakes and the time of year, that shot injected a new identity into the program.

“I was asked before the N.C. State game [when Clemson was 8-0], ‘Has Clemson changed?’ ” said Tigers tight end Dwayne Allen, who had two TDs on Saturday. “I said, ‘Not yet.’ But after this game, we’ve changed.”

Changed, though, to the point of being considered a national championship contender heading into next season, as Watkins suggested?

Well, Clemson’s offensive skill positions will be absolutely loaded next season. Quarterback Tajh Boyd, who dissected Virginia Tech the entire night and became the sixth ACC quarterback to throw 30 TD passes in a season, is a sophomore. Both starting receivers will be back, along with the top three tailbacks and Allen at tight end.

Clemson landed the nation’s No. 8 recruiting class last year with four five-star recruits (Watkins, Tony Steward, Mike Bellamy and Stephone Anthony), and so far its 2012 class ranks 10th.

And then there’s Swinney, who apparently can both coach and motivate. Saturday, he must have done something right at halftime. Clemson outscored Virginia Tech 21-0 and outgained the Hokies 210-51 in the third quarter alone.

He also managed to unify his team and fans following last week’s lopsided loss to South Carolina by taking a shot at the Gamecocks over a perceived disrespectful tweet from Columbia.

“That’s why Carolina’s in Chapel Hill, USC’s in California and the university in this state always has been and always will be Clemson. Right here in Clemson, S.C. So you can print that. Tweet that,” Swinney told reporters.

Fans showed their support for his jab by waving signs Saturday that read, “Dabo, tweet this.” When he left the field and walked into the tunnel – raising a football above his head – the chant of “Dab-O, Dab-O” echoed off the walls.

Some of these fans, surely, were among those Swinney was ordering to “back away from the ledge” just four months ago.

“There’s been a lot of walls built around this program over the last 20 years,” Swinney said. “People that don’t believe, doubters, whatever it is. Slowly but surely, we’ve been knocking those walls down the last couple years. Some people try to build them back up as soon as we knock one down. But today we knocked them down.”

For good? Check back next September.

Wait … make it next November.

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Derek Samson is the Assistant Managing Editor/Recruiting for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Send Derek a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Dec 4, 2011