CLEMSON, S.C. — The searing momentum of a football program can be more easily encapsulated by a feeling than a ranking. Down here in Death Valley, the orange-clad faithful slogged through the mist on Saturday afternoon to cheer for a Clemson team that hadn’t been ranked No. 1 since the final poll of the 1981 season. The 83,099 fans climbed to their toes and serenaded, from the bottom of their lungs, a new world order of football in the state, the ACC and the country.
For so long, Clemson has sputtered in the shadows of ACC rival Florida State and the looming presence of the SEC. It has been branded as more of a national tease than national power. But that energy teeming, shaking and chanting through Death Valley Saturday evening felt like a revival fans had waited four decades for. “This is the best of times,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “This is the good 'ol days.”
In top-ranked Clemson’s 23–13 come-from-behind victory over No. 16 Florida State, the Tigers eventually overwhelmed the Seminoles with their environment and overpowered them with their skill. Nothing epitomized this more than when Clemson sealed the game as linebacker Ben Boulware ripped the ball from Florida State receiver Travis Rudolph to force a fumble that also managed to strip some of Rudolph’s pride.
Outside of defending national champion Ohio State, there is no team in the country with more momentum right now than the Tigers. Not only is Clemson ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings and already in possession of the ACC Atlantic Division title, but its in-state rival South Carolina is toiling after the year-too-late resignation of coach Steve Spurrier. With the Gamecocks facing a coaching search and a rebuild, Clemson continued its attempt to distance itself from the Gamecocks by announcing the ground breaking of a $55 million football complex Friday afternoon. Clemson can sell one of the great game-day environments in all of college football and has one of the bright young stars in Deshaun Watson as a recruiting magnet. It now also can offer access to mini-golf, beach volleyball and laser tag at a brand new facility. “We’re on such a roll right now,” Clemson president Jim Clements said in his office Friday. “Everything is going incredible.”
So, what can slow the Tigers down? For Clemson to keep its mojo, it will need to keep Swinney. It lurks in the back of everyone’s mind at Clemson that Swinney walked on as a player at Alabama, earned a scholarship there and hails from the state. He served as a graduate assistant and later a position coach for the Crimson Tide. According to a source, Swinney keeps in touch with influencers at Alabama. It’s the belief among decision-makers in Tuscaloosa that Swinney would eagerly come if called. Bear Bryant famously declared after leaving Texas A&M for Bama in 1958 that “Mama called. And when mama calls you have to come running.”
Mama isn’t likely to call soon. Even with the plum Indianapolis Colts job expected to open, there are few who believe Alabama coach Nick Saban will end up in the NFL. How many years does Saban have left? He’s 64, and those around him believe that Tuscaloosa will be his last coaching stop.
Oddly, South Carolina finds itself in the bizarre position to ratchet up the chances of Swinney going to Alabama. If the Gamecocks hire Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart—and he’s at the top of their list—that would take away the only logical in-house Saban successor. (Sorry, Lane.) And that would make Swinney, with his eight years of head coaching experience and Bama ties, an even more obvious frontrunner for the Crimson Tide job when it ultimately opens. By consistently beating Smart (if he goes to South Carolina), Swinney could stay that way.
“He’s done everything right,” Clements said of Swinney. “He’s going to be on everyone’s radar screen, including Alabama. Should that call ever come, we’ll deal with it when it comes. If I’m the president at Alabama, and I have an opening, guess who I’m calling?”
Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said he has not had conversations with Swinney about Alabama, but he’s cognizant of its pull. Radakovich also pointed out that Swinney is in the second year of an eight-year contract. (His buyout becomes reasonable in 2019, as it will be $4 million and then drop to $2 million the following year.) “I don’t know,” Radakovich said about Swinney feeling Bama's pull. “I think that could be. Dabo and I have not had detailed discussions about that. There’s some folks that really listen to the call of their alma mater. Others, not so much.”
He added: “But Dabo obviously being from Alabama, having been a player, having success there and still having friends and family there. Certainly, that’s something.”
There’s a counterintuitive argument that Clemson—and Florida State for that matter—can be considered better jobs than most in the SEC West because they come with an easier path to the College Football Playoff. Do you want to be the guy who replaces Nick Saban or play what amount to guarantee in-conference games against Syracuse, Wake Forest and Boston College every year?
Radakovich also notes the amount that Swinney has invested to build Clemson up to this point. Swinney is the modern personification of the quirky and outsized Southern coach, which has been a beautiful fit with the Tigers. “I think what he’s built here and the amount of blood, sweat and tears that he’s put into this,” Radakovich said, “how he’s invested and how his family invested. I think you saw the genuine love that people have for him here. I think that’s really important.”
For a while on Saturday, Clemson didn’t look ready for prime time. The Tigers let Seminoles tailback Dalvin Cook waltz for a 75-yard touchdown on the first drive and squandered a deft fake punt attempt with an illegal formation penalty. There was a moment in which Watson spiked the ball on third down, forfeiting a shot at a touchdown late in the second quarter. But Clemson’s defense and ear-splitting environment eventually unnerved Florida State and backup quarterback Sean Maguire. The 'Noles got flagged for six pre-snap penalties and struggled to cull any significant offensive momentum after the opening series. Meanwhile, Watson led two fourth-quarter scoring drives to break a tie game. He finished with 297 passing yards and a career-high 107 rushing yards.
“We just dominated them,” guard Eric Mac Lain said.
The Tigers are headed toward the playoff at warp speed behind a star coach and a precocious quarterback. As fans lingered on the field to enjoy the team's first official celebration as a top-ranked program in nearly four decades, it looked, felt and sounded like the dawn of a new era at Clemson. It could last for a long time.
At least, until Mama calls Dabo.