Clemson’s win over Alabama in the national championship game solidified Dabo Swinney’s status among the ranks of elite coaches. As he celebrated with his players inside Raymond James Stadium, it was difficult not to marvel at the strength and durability of the program he’s built. Under Swinney’s leadership, Clemson fans can rightfully expect more conference championships and national championship game appearances in the near future.
Yet Swinney’s triumph over the Crimson Tide also brought into focus a different topic, one that has lingered in the background during the past two years of the College Football Playoff as Clemson and Alabama squared off in back-to-back title games and one that will take on greater urgency after the Tigers’ victory: When the coach whom Swinney beat in the championship game, Nick Saban, retires, will Swinney succeed him?
It seems like a perfect fit. An Alabama native who walked on as a wide receiver and later earned a scholarship with the Crimson Tide, Swinney served as a graduate assistant and an assistant coach for the program from 1993–2000. Since taking over as Clemson’s permanent coach in December 2008 after being named the program’s interim coach earlier that year when Tommy Bowden was fired, Swinney has led the Tigers to double-digit wins in six consecutive seasons and molded them into a perennial national championship contender. Through high-level recruiting, savvy assistant hires, consistent talent development and an enthusiasm that shines through in every press conference and television interview, Swinney has transformed the perception of a program long derided for perplexing losses to weak opponents. His teams have shined on college football’s biggest stage the last two seasons, as the Tigers pushed Alabama to the brink in a 45–40 loss in the national title game last year before avenging that defeat with a 35–31 victory Monday night.
That Swinney is considered the most obvious choice to assume Saban’s position as the conductor of college football’s most dominant program since the turn of the century is a testament to what he’s accomplished at Clemson. Never was that more clear than this season.
A year after pushing Clemson within five points of the program’s first national championship since 1981, Swinney helped the Tigers manage seismic preseason expectations to deliver a second consecutive conference title and playoff championship game berth. Clemson got there despite losing the second-most players (nine) to the NFL draft of any team this off-season and needing to fend off two other playoff threats in its own division, Louisville and Florida State, that were led by two of the nation’s best players (Heisman Trophy-winning sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson and star junior running back Dalvin Cook). Neither of those squads could topple the Tigers, and they bounced back from their only misstep in 2016, a 43–42 home loss to Pittsburgh on a field goal with six seconds left in regulation, by blowing away Wake Forest and South Carolina in consecutive weeks, handling a talented Virginia Tech team 42–35 in the ACC championship game, drubbing No. 3 Ohio State in the playoff semifinals and edging Alabama in the national title bout.
That stretch cemented Clemson’s place at the top of the college football food chain and, coupled with the Crimson Tide’s run through the SEC and subsequent 24–7 win over Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal, ensured the first title game rematch since the inception of the pre-playoff Bowl Championship Series. The matchup threw into stark relief how Swinney has crafted Clemson into a winner with the sort of staying power commonly associated with Alabama. Accordingly, Swinney’s tools bear a resemblance to those used by Saban with the Crimson Tide.
Like Saban, Swinney is convincing some of the nation’s top high school players to sign with Clemson every year. Like Saban, Swinney has developed those players so successfully that Clemson reloads rather than rebuilds when players graduate or leave early for the NFL. Like Saban, Swinney has the financial support and resources to keep Clemson at the front of the facilities arms race. And at Clemson, Swinney has one clear advantage over Saban that doesn’t figure to change in the near future: In the ACC, the Tigers’ path to the playoff is less daunting than it is for Alabama in the rugged SEC.
All of those factors contributed to Clemson’s reaching the title game for a second consecutive season, and they conceivably could keep the Tigers in the running for championship game bids for the foreseeable future. The end result could be Swinney putting together a résumé of achievements that rivals Saban’s.
Playing hypothetical games of coaching matchmaker is far simpler than considering the details involved in transfers of power at major programs. The timing may not be right. Other candidates may emerge. Perhaps the fit isn’t quite as snug as it seems from a distance. But at this stage, with no indication Saban is ready hang it up, the particulars of a hypothetical Saban-to-Swinney transition are less important than the notion that Swinney has proven himself a worthy heir apparent to one of the greatest coaches of all time. Whether or not Swinney eventually inherits Saban’s throne (when asked about the topic at a press conference last January, Swinney said, “I always tell people, never say never”), that he’s clearly qualified to do so speaks volumes about how far Clemson has come under his watch.
For now, at least, speculation about Saban’s successor will take a backseat to the competition between Alabama and Clemson under their current coaches. This season provided another installment of a thrilling matchup pitting two heavyweights, and it feels like they could meet again sometime soon. Deshaun Watson is headed to the NFL, but the Tigers have recruited quality depth at quarterback. As for the rest of their roster? It’s loaded with future pros. Alabama will bring back its quarterback, Jalen Hurts, for his second consecutive season as the starter, and its world-beating defense can retool with promising reserves to account for losses like lineman Jonathan Allen and linebackers Reuben Foster and Tim Williams.
Each matchup between the two programs will only spur more discussion about Swinney’s fit at Alabama. Clemson fans may bristle at the possibility of the Crimson Tide poaching their coach, but the chatter is a byproduct of the Tigers’ success. Swinney wouldn’t be the best choice to replace Saban if he hadn’t proved his worth at Clemson.