- If Clemson's run to the national title game last season retired the old meaning of Clemsoning, the Tigers' championship this year requires a new definition: Clemson wins big games.
This story appears in the special Clemson national championship commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated. To get your copy, click here.
As the confetti rained down from a clear evening sky at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, and Tigers players and coaches exulted on the field after marching 68 yards in just over two minutes to vanquish a supposedly unbeatable opponent, it was difficult not to think back to another time. A time, not so long ago, when Clemson football was more commonly associated with baffling losses than with momentous victories. The Tigers’ win over Alabama in the national championship game didn’t just give Clemson its first title since the early years of the Reagan Administration; it was the culmination of a steady transformation from an erratic, widely ridiculed program into a durable college football powerhouse.
The Tigers’ old propensity for slipping up against inferior competition had inspired its own verb, Clemsoning, which caught on with college football fans and seemed to loom over the program’s accomplishments. There was a reluctance to assess Clemson favorably, even when its record would have justified that, for fear that the Tigers would spoil their success with a dumbfounding defeat to a lowly foe. By the middle of the 2015 season, when Clemson was 5–0, the derisive term had become so commonplace that coach Dabo Swinney was asked about it at a press conference. (“What else do we have to do?” he demanded. “I can’t believe I have to come here with a 5–0 football team and talk about Clemsoning.”)
If the Tigers retired that term by reaching the national championship game last season, their win over Alabama in the 2017 title bout set it ablaze. Like any program, Clemson is not immune to unexpected losses, but its run this season made it clear that the Tigers are poised to continue winning at college football’s highest level. Indeed, Clemson is a juggernaut built to last—not unlike the team it just defeated in Tampa.
Since Swinney took over as Clemson’s permanent head coach in December 2008 (he was initially named the interim coach that October, after Tommy Bowden resigned), the Tigers have averaged 10.6 wins a year. They posted double-digit wins in six consecutive seasons (from 2011 to ’16), including back-to-back 14-victory campaigns in 2015 and ’16.
The fuel for that success is high-level recruiting, strong player development and administrative support. Clemson signs some of the nation’s best high school prospects every year; it coaches and trains them so well that the Tigers can reload when players graduate or leave for the NFL; and it has the financial support to spend lavishly on coaching salaries and facilities. The combination should ensure the Tigers don’t fall too far in any one season even if, say, Swinney misses out on a few recruits or Clemson suffers a rash of injuries. The foundation of the Tigers’ success is as solid as Howard’s Rock.
Consider how Clemson rebounded from a 45–40 defeat by Alabama in the title game last season. Despite losing nine players to the NFL draft (second only to Ohio State’s 12) and sharing a division with two programs, Louisville and Florida State, that each claimed a spot in the AP top 10 at one point this season, the Tigers navigated sky-high preseason expectations to deliver a second consecutive ACC championship. Clemson knocked off both the Cardinals and the Seminoles and responded to the season’s lone blemish, a 43–42 loss to Pittsburgh in Death Valley on Nov. 12 (that surely would have elicited Clemsoning jabs just a few years ago) by reeling off consecutive wins over Wake Forest and South Carolina by a combined score of 91–20.
There’s little reason to doubt Clemson can get back to another title game, and soon. Star quarterback Deshaun Watson will depart for the NFL, but the Tigers have recruited well at his position, and the rest of the depth chart is stocked with NFL-caliber talent. Clemson’s ability to withstand the loss of one of the nation’s best players is a test the Tigers are sure to pass. This team is not going away. It’s time to redefine Clemsoning: The Tigers win big games.