SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Dabo Swinney spent his formative years revering Alabama football. Growing up in the state, walking on as a player and beginning his coaching career there, the Crimson Tide program meant everything to him.
Now Swinney has created the only program in college football that is the equal of Alabama.
And, on Monday night, a program that was better than ‘Bama. Dramatically better. Shockingly better. Four touchdowns better.
Clemson beat the Tide on Monday night for the second time in three years, both in the College Football Playoff national championship game. The Tigers dropped a 44-16 stunner on the defending national champs at Levi’s Stadium, and it was the final testament to the fact that Clemson has elevated itself from pursuer of the Tide to peer with the Tide to punisher of the Tide.
“Two out of the last three years!” Clemson staffers shouted as they left the press box late in the fourth quarter.
The two teams have split four playoff meetings, each taking two titles in the process. Their rivalry has defined the playoff era. Combined score of those four meetings: Tigers 125, Tide 116. This one was a rout nobody saw coming, a fantasy game for the masses yearning for an end to Alabama oppression.
Nick Saban has lost just four games in the past four years, and Swinney is the only person to beat him twice in that span. He did it in 2016 with the best quarterback in Clemson history, Deshaun Watson, and now he’s done it with the guy who may supplant Watson when his time as a Tiger is done, freshman Trevor Lawrence.
“There hasn’t ever been a 15-0 team and I know we’re not supposed to be here,” Swinney said after the game. “We’re just little-old Clemson and I’m not supposed to be here. But we are and I am. How about them Tigers?”
In winning Monday, Swinney was the man with all the answers while Saban (of all people) was watching his team self-destruct — turnovers, penalties, blown coverages, special-teams snafus, red-zone futility. This was a shocking woodshed beating, with the Tigers executing like the confident, cold-blooded machine that so often has been Alabama.
It was the worst loss of Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, and the worst any Saban-coached team has suffered since a 45-16 loss to Georgia while the coach at LSU in 2004.
Behind this powerhouse performance, Clemson becomes just the 10th team since the AP poll era began in 1936 to win at least two national championships in a three-year span. The rest of the list: Alabama, Florida, USC, Nebraska, Miami, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Army and Minnesota.
In the process, Swinney has surpassed celebrated coaches like Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz, Bob Stoops and Vince Dooley — they all won one title. Swinney now moves alongside Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno and Ara Parseghian with two.
And guess what? At age 49, with a superstar quarterback who will play two more years in an orange uniform, Dabo is nowhere near finished.
Swinney delights in playing dumb, often sounding like a rube who just fell off the turnip truck and landed on a pile of gold. Case in point, this from media day Saturday: “I just saw my first tumbleweed. I’ve never seen a tumbleweed in my entire life. We don’t have tumbleweeds in Alabama or South Carolina. We’re coming down the road on a bus, and this huge, like, ball of sticks, that’s the only way I can – just comes right at the bus. I’m like, what the heck is that? He’s like, that’s a tumbleweed. I thought those were just in like Roadrunner or the movies or something.”
In reality, Dabo is no dumbo. Far from it.
He’s a savvy, detail-oriented worker with an inexhaustible appetite for recruiting and player development. After getting the Clemson head-coaching job in 2009, he studied the juggernaut Saban was building at his alma mater and sought to copy key parts of it.
“When he became the head coach and started kind of putting that in place, it was something that I paid attention to,” Swinney said. “Because the old model where you had the head coach and nine assistants and a couple [graduate assistants] and you were everything, you were the coach, you were the counselor, you wore every hat. In the meantime, recruiting is still going on, problems happen, these kids are kids and they have family issues.
“So creating an infrastructure to support the coaches in the ultimate mission of helping these guys have that great experience, but helping them get the tools they need to go dominate in life and at the same time develop as a player, and I think Coach Saban kind of led the way in that. I think as a coach, we’re always studying and trying to learn from every program, and Alabama has certainly been the standard for a decade or so since he’s been there. So I’ve learned lots of things.”
The difference between Swinney and some other automatons in the profession — say, Nick Saban — is that he’s capable of projecting joy amid the grind. If he feels stress, he doesn’t wear it like Urban Meyer.
“This has been a very joyful season is the best way I can say it,” Swinney said Sunday. “I really have enjoyed the day-to-day, mundane activities of just being around this team, and a lot of times it’s felt like this team kind of wanted to hit pause, and I do think that they’ve enjoyed the journey. I do think this senior group has savored every moment along the way.”
Just as this Clemson program has, in the greater sense, become the equal of Alabama, this particular Tigers team proved itself just as good — no, better — than a Tide team many were placing among the all-time greats during the season.
All along, the stats indicated that bronzing ‘Bama was premature. Compared to Clemson, they were remarkably even.
Average margin of victory coming into this game: Alabama 31.5 points, Clemson 31.4. Average yards per game: Clemson 530.4, Alabama 527.6. Average yards allowed per game: Clemson 274.6, Alabama 307.9. Yards per play differential: Clemson plus-3.28, Alabama plus-3.19.
It’s true that the Tigers navigated through a less-challenging conference than the Tide, particularly at the point of the league championship game. The only common opponent was Texas A&M, with a two-point Clemson escape in College Station and a 22-point whipping in Tuscaloosa. But that was before Lawrence had taken over the starting job and put his stamp on the Tigers’ offense — he was just 5 of 9 for 93 yards against the Aggies.
As the season progressed and Lawrence matured, Clemson improved. Until it was ready to not only go toe-to-toe with Alabama, but win in a brutal knockout.
And, in the process, elevate Alabama native Dabo Swinney among the most accomplished coaches in history.
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