By Robby General | @rgeneraljr
Sports Capital Journalism Program
SAN JOSE, Calif. – You couldn’t wipe the smile away from Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s face.
Standing at midfield surrounded by reporters, fans and a seemingly endless stream of orange and purple confetti falling within Levi’s Stadium, he gave an elated postgame speech.
Swinney, who just completed his 10th full season as Clemson’s head coach, took a few moments to enjoy the program’s third national title in school history, but his focus quickly shifted back into coaching mode.
As the confetti finished falling, it was hard to tell what Swinney was more excited about, capping off college football’s first 15-0 season since the University of Pennsylvania did so in 1897, or getting back to work for next season?
“(I) can’t wait to get back started Friday and see if we can find a way to go do it again,” Swinney said in his postgame press conference.
Clemson had just beaten No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, 44-16. The 28-point deficit was the largest defeat a Nick Saban-coached Alabama squad has faced in his tenure. And Friday’s team meetings were what was on Swinney’s mind.
In the Swinney era, Clemson has established itself as one of the premier programs in college football. Its record (102-22) is the third best in the NCAA behind Ohio State (92-17) and Alabama (113-13) in terms of winning percentage. When asked about college football dynasties, however, Swinney doesn’t like to compare Clemson to Alabama.
“We’re a long way from a dynasty,” Swinney said during Tuesday’s press conference. “… We’re certainly – I think we’re as good a program as there is out there, but we’re a long way from a dynasty standpoint, Alabama is kind of in a category of their own.”
While Alabama will be remembered as the most dominant team of this decade, winning four national titles since 2010, the Tigers have just about caught up to the Crimson Tide. In the past four seasons, Alabama and Clemson’s resumes are nearly identical.
Both have remained ranked in the Top 10 of the previous 58 Associated Press polls, each with a 55-4 record. Both have dominated their respected conferences, with Clemson winning each of the past four Atlantic Coast Conference titles and Alabama winning three Southeastern Conference championships. And both have two National Championship titles, eliminating each other from the College Football Playoff in order to do so.
Clemson returns a lot of young talent next year, as well. Here are a few of the underclassmen the Tigers are set to bring back: freshman quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Chase Brice, sophomore wide receivers Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers, plus freshman Justyn Ross, sophomore running back Travis Etienne, freshman running back Lyn-J Dixon, plus four defensive backs that are freshmen or sophomores: Isaiah Simmons, A.J. Terrell, Nolan Turner and Xavier Thomas.
While the Tigers graduate plenty of talent, particularly on the defensive front, Swinney said he’s confident with the group of guys he’s got coming in.
“I think what we’re going to be able to put on the field up front, we’ve got a lot of guys that nobody – ya’ll don’t have no idea who they are right now,” Swinney said. “But this time next year everybody is going to know who they are.”
Combining young talent with Swinney’s knack for retaining veteran players and coaches is what set Clemson apart from the rest of the pack this season. Seven of 10 assistant coaches on Swinney’s staff have been at Clemson for more than five seasons.
Campbell Trophy winner Christian Wilkins – despite being a top prospect in the National Football League draft – decided to return to Clemson for another season. With his help, Clemson’s senior class graduates with 55 career wins, tied with Alabama’s seniors for the most in college football history.
It’s a special culture at Clemson, one players like junior cornerback Trayvon Mullen – who was named Defensive Player of the Game in the National Championship – have come to appreciate.
“I feel like this program is based off of love as far as with the players, but also the sense of love for each other,” Mullen said. “We care about each other, and I feel like every Saturday we go out there and show it. We always preach that as far as with the coaches and the players.
“We love each other, we go into Saturdays, we love our fans, the culture, just everything about the program.”
That love is obvious.
As Swinney stood on stage during the National Championship Trophy presentation late Monday night, redshirt junior defensive end Clelin Ferrell took the microphone.
“For any of the recruits out there,” Ferrell said, “if you want to come to a program where you got to worry about your coach all up in the locker room, dancing, come to Death Valley!”