Clemson Football: The Gold Standard

CU Athletic Communications

MOST WINS SINCE 2015, SECOND-MOST SINCE 2011

Clemson’s recent success has been particularly pronounced in the midst of Clemson’s five-year streak of College Football Playoff appearances since 2015. Clemson leads Alabama for the most wins in the country in that span, while the teams have split two national championships in that time frame.

Clemson’s 69 wins during the 2015-19 seasons represented the most in a five-year period in the AP Poll era (since 1936).

Clemson has a 111-16 record since starting its current stretch of 10-win seasons in 2011. Only Alabama (114-12) has more wins since 2011. The Tigers also have the second-highest winning percentage (. 881) in that time frame.

12-WIN SEASONS

Clemson has won 12 games in five consecutive seasons, the longest active streak of 12-win seasons and one of only four such streaks in major college football history, joining Alabama (five from 2014-18), Penn (seven from 1892-98) and Yale (five from 1888-92).

Even at lower thresholds, Clemson’s streak of success would remain impressive. Of the 130 active FBS schools, only 30 programs won at least six games in all five seasons from 2015-19. That number dips to 12 when pushing the win total to eight, and drops all the way to four (Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State) when setting the bar at 10 wins.

10-WIN SEASONS

Clemson enters 2020 riding a streak of nine consecutive seasons with 10+ wins. The program’s ninth consecutive 10-win season in 2019 made Clemson only the fourth program in FBS history to record at least nine consecutive 10-win seasons, tying the 2001-09 Texas Longhorns for the third-longest streak on record. With another 10-win season in 2020, Clemson would become only the third program in FBS history to produce a “double-double” — double-digit wins in a double-digit number of consecutive seasons.

The record for consecutive 10-win seasons is 14, set by Florida State (1987-2000). Alabama is the only other program with an active streak of at least nine straight 10-win seasons.

The Tigers have 16 10-win seasons in school history, with more than half coming in the last nine years under head coach Dabo Swinney. The 2019 season was Clemson’s sixth with at least 12 wins, with Swinney sitting at the helm for five of them.

A LOOK BACK AT THE 2010s

Head Coach Dabo Swinney can vividly recall the looks he received when he said Clemson was on the cusp of the winningest decade in program history following a 2010 campaign in which the Tigers finished 6-7. In 2017, that vision became a reality with two seasons to spare when Clemson collected its 88th win of the decade in the ACC Championship Game against Miami (Fla.) to surpass the Tigers of the 1980s (87) for most wins in any decade in school history.

With a rivalry win against South Carolina to close the 2018 regular season, Clemson reached triple digits in wins in a decade for the first time in program history. Included below are the schools that have accomplished that feat.

“Transformative,” Head Coach Dabo Swinney called the 2010s prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship. “We’ve transformed Clemson, and the next decade is the Roaring Twenties. I heard those were great. Hopefully we can relive those.”

Clemson finished the 2010s with 117 victories, tied for the third-most victories in a decade in major college football since the 1890s, trailing only Penn (124 in the 1890s) and Alabama (124 in the 2010s). Clemson recorded a 117-22 record in the decade of the 2010s, an .841 winning percentage that represented the best for any decade in school history.

ANOTHER SENIOR CLASS CHASING HISTORY

Every January, Head Coach Dabo Swinney conducts his first official team meeting with his new team. The first order of business in the meeting is to “reset the room,” reorganizing the seating arrangement with seniors in front and all succeeding classes in order behind them in the team auditorium.

The 2020 Clemson seniors reached the front of the room having watched each of the two classes in front of them depart as the winningest senior classes in FBS history, tied with the 2018 Alabama seniors at 55 wins in four years. This year’s group will have the ability to follow in that lineage and earn that same claim.

The 2019 seniors were the second Clemson class and one of only three classes all-time to reach 55 career wins in a four-year span. Clemson’s 2019 group reached 55 wins in 58 games, tying the 2018 Alabama seniors as the quickest to that mark.

The 2020 Clemson seniors are 41-3 since 2017, three more than any current senior class in the country.

Clemson’s seniors can tie the 2018 and 2019 seniors for the best four-year mark in school, conference and Football Bowl Subdivision history with 14 wins in 2020 and can own the record outright if it were to repeat with another 15-0 campaign.

FIVE LEAGUE TITLES IN A ROW

Clemson won its fifth straight ACC championship in 2019, as the Tigers and the Oklahoma Sooners both became the first programs in an active FBS conference since the 1971-75 Alabama Crimson Tide to win five consecutive outright titles.

Clemson had already been the first ACC school to win four outright titles in a row prior to extending the streak to five in 2019. Florida State was a champion or co-champion nine years in a row from 1992-00, but never won more than three outright in a row.

Clemson’s success in the conference championship game era is unprecedented, as in 2019, Clemson became the first school since the formation of conference championship games in 1992 to win five consecutive conference title games.

POWER OVER THE POWER FIVE

Early in his head coaching tenure, Dabo Swinney laid out his belief to then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips that the Tigers needed to add tough nonconference challenges on top of their tests in ACC play to serve as a foundation for the program’s growth.

“I had a conversation with Terry Don and said, ‘Terry Don, I know we are not very good right now, but we need to play people because that is going to help me teach and help me develop the culture and the mindset that you have to have to win at the highest level,'” recounted Swinney. “I didn’t think we had that, and that’s what we committed to. That’s what we’ve done.”

That scheduling philosophy and culture change has resonated in the Clemson program, and since 2013, no team can claim more wins against Power Five Conference opponents than the Tigers.

On an annual basis, Clemson has finished the season atop the country in wins against Power Five opponents four times since the institution of the College Football Playoff in 2014, including four of the last five years. That includes a record 13 wins against Power Five opponents in 2018.

STAFF CONTINUITY

Clemson has become a beacon of stability in the increasingly unstable environment of college football. Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney enters his 18th overall season at Clemson in 2020, including his 12th full season as head coach (and his 13th including an interim stint in 2008).

Since the start of Swinney’s first season as full-time head coach in 2009, there have been 392 head coaching tenures in the FBS, but only one such tenure at Clemson. Clemson and Duke are the only schools in the ACC with only one head coach since the start of the 2009 season, and among the 11 schools to qualify for the College Football Playoff all-time, only Clemson and Alabama have had only one head coach since 2009.

Clemson’s continuity at head coach has helped create continuity throughout the entire coaching staff. This year’s Clemson staff will be one of only six in the FBS to feature at least four coaches (head coach and/or full-time assistants) who have been with their current program for at least 10 seasons in 2020.

NO. 1 FOR NO. 1 RECRUITS

As Clemson was in the midst of the winningest decade in school history and tied for the third-winningest decade in major college football history, Head Coach Dabo Swinney would frequently point out that Clemson accomplished its goals by finding the right fits for its program in recruiting rather than chasing recruiting rankings.

Swinney often noted that Clemson accomplished its immense success in his tenure despite never signing the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. That changed in 2020, when ESPN ranked Clemson’s 2020 group as the nation’s top recruiting class. Clemson also recorded its highest rankings in both Rivals (No. 2) and 247 Sports (No. 3) history.

Clemson has signed the nation’s consensus top player in two out of the last three recruiting cycles, welcoming quarterback Trevor Lawrence in 2018 and defensive tackle Bryan Bresee in 2020.

Clemson is the only team in the country to sign Rivals’ No. 1 recruit twice in a three-year span since Dabo Swinney was named head coach at Clemson. Signing the No. 1 overall recruit again in 2021 would make Clemson the first school to sign the nation’s top player in back-to-back years in accessible Rivals.com and 247 Sports data.

Clemson and Alabama (two each) are tied for the most No. 1 recruits signed since 2009 per Rivals’ rankings. Clemson and Georgia (two each) are tied for the most in that span per the 247 Composite.

Clemson’s recruiting classes have finished in the top 15 of at least one of three primary recruiting services (ESPN, Rivals and 247 Sports) every year since 2011. Clemson is one of only seven schools to produce a Top 15 class in each of the last 10 years, a group that also includes Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and Ohio State. The next longest active streak of Top 15 classes is five (Florida).

CHAMPIONSHIP HERITAGE

After being named Clemson’s full-time coach in December of 2008, Head Coach Dabo Swinney set about securing his first signing class in 2009.

His first class, which he tabbed the “Dandy Dozen,” brought home Clemson’s first ACC title since 1991 during their junior campaign in 2011. All of Clemson’s first 11 signing classes under Swinney have at least one ACC title to their credit in their four years at Clemson. Every signing class since 2012 has played for at least one national title, and every class since 2013 has won a national championship with exception of Clemson’s 2019 class, which fell just shy in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game last season.

PLAYOFF STREAKS

With five consecutive College Football Playoff appearances, entering the spring of 2020, Clemson’s active playoff streak is as long or longer than:

— 31 of 32 NFL teams
— 29 of 30 MLB teams
— 30 of 31 NHL teams
— 25 of 30 NBA teams

So, despite only four teams making the College Football Playoff each year, Clemson’s playoff streak at the conclusion of the 2019 season was as long or longer than 115 of the 123 teams in the four major professional sports.

Included below is a look at the only eight teams in the four major professional leagues with active playoff streaks exceeding Clemson’s five (as of January 2020):

POLL STREAKS

Clemson has been ranked in the Top 25 of 85 consecutive AP polls dating to the 2014 season, the third-longest active streak in the nation. That includes a streak of 76 straight top-10 rankings, tied for first in the country with Alabama.

As far as total top-25 rankings since 2011, Clemson has appeared in 140 of a possible 147 polls (95.2 percent). That is the third-most in the nation, trailing only Alabama (147) and Oklahoma (143).

The 2019 season represented Clemson’s fifth consecutive season finishing in the AP Top 5, tied for the sixth-longest streak in AP Poll history. On an individual poll basis, Clemson’s 39-poll streak in the AP Top 5 is the longest active streak in the country and tied for the 10th-longest in AP Poll history. Clemson’s current weekly Top 5 streak is the only active one in the country to predate the 2019 season.

CLOSE-GAME SUCCESS

Though Clemson has not played a large number of one-possession games in recent years, the Tigers have proved very adept at winning such contests since 2011. In that span, the Tigers have played 30 games with a final margin of eight points or less, and Clemson’s .867 winning percentage in those one-possession contests is the best in the country in that time frame.

Clemson’s win against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl pitted the nation’s top two teams in one-score games since 2011 against one another in a win-or-go-home one-possession game. With the six-point win, Clemson improved to 26-4 in one-score games in that span, reaching the mark against a Buckeye squad that entered the game with a .735 winning percentage since 2011 in one-score games.

ALL-ACC HONORS

Clemson’s 16 All-ACC selections in 2019 led the conference and double the next-closest program (Wake Forest and Pitt, eight each). Clemson tied for the third-most selections in school history, trailing the program’s 18 selections in 2018 and 17 selections in 2015.

Seven of Clemson’s 16 All-ACC selections (not counting honorable mentions) are expected to return in 2020, the most in the conference as of the start of spring practice.

Clemson’s returning all-conference honorees includes first-teamers Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, second-teamers Tyler Davis and Derion Kendrick, and third-teamers Jackson Carman, Xavier Thomas, and Nyles Pinckney.

650-POINT SEASONS

Clemson scored 659 points in 2019, concluding the season only five points shy of tying the school record of 664 set in 2018. Clemson is now responsible for two of the 22 650-point seasons in major college football history and two of only 16 since Division I split in 1978. Clemson is the first school with back-to-back 650-point seasons since Yale in 1888-89, predating the start of official NCAA record keeping in 1937 and the second year of which was coincidentally the year Clemson was founded.

OFFENSIVE BALANCE

Clemson has featured remarkable offensive balance while qualifying for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in each of the last two years. Clemson has averaged at least 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game four times in school history, with two of those seasons occurring in the 2018 and 2019 campaigns.

Clemson exceeded the 200/200 mark rushing and passing in 2019 by averaging 240.4 rushing yards per game and 288.3 passing yards per game. Clemson was one of only three teams in 2019 to average at least 240 yards per game in each category, along with fellow CFP participants Ohio State and Oklahoma. Clemson broke the 3,000-yard mark both rushing and passing in 2019, making the campaign only the third 3,000/3,000 season in school history (2015 and 2018).

Clemson has exceeded both 200 passing yards and 200 rushing yards in 51 games under Dabo Swinney, posting a perfect record in those contests. Clemson’s 17 such games since the start of the 2018 season are the most in the country.

YARDS PER PLAY

Clemson shattered its school record for yards per play in 2018 at 7.35, the program’s first time exceeding seven yards per play in a season. That record stood for barely 12 months until Clemson broke it again in 2019 by averaging 7.38 yards per play.

Clemson became only the third school since 2000 to average 7.35 or better yards per play in back-to-back seasons, joining Alabama, which did it across 2018-19, and Oklahoma, which is in the midst of a four-year streak across the 2016-19 seasons.

THE CFP ERA'S DOMINANT DEFENSE

Since the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014, Clemson has routinely produced one of the nation’s elite defenses.

Clemson has ranked in the Top 10 in the country in total defense in each of the last six seasons and has ranked among the Top 10 in scoring defense in four of those campaigns.

Clemson is only program in the country to produce a Top 10 defense in each of the last six years.

BACKFIELD INVADERS

Clemson’s defense calls Death Valley home but might as well file for dual residency in opponents’ backfields. Since 2014, Clemson leads the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss.

Clemson’s success sacking quarterbacks has not been limited to a handful of high-production players but is instead indicative of team-wide success. Since 2014, 62 different Clemson players have recorded at least half a sack. Nine of those players reached double-digit sacks since 2014 (Clelin Ferrell, 27.0; Austin Bryant, 20.5; Shaq Lawson, 16.0; Christian Wilkins, 16.0; Carlos Watkins, 14.0; Kevin Dodd, 12.0; Vic Beasley, 12.0; Isaiah Simmons, 10.5; Dexter Lawrence, 10.5).

300 OR FEWER YARDS

Clemson opened the 2019 season by keeping each of their first 12 opponents to fewer than 300 yards, marking the first time in ESPN Stats & Info searchable data going back to 1996 that a team had held the first 12 opponents of a season under that mark. ACC Coastal Division champion Virginia became the first team to hit the 300-yard plateau on Clemson, accounting for 387 in the ACC Championship Game.

Included below is a look at the most games holding opponents under 300 yards to open a season since 2000.

POINTS ALLOWED PER POSSESSION

Since Brent Venables joined Clemson as defensive coordinator prior to the 2012 season, Clemson has allowed only 1.14 points per possession against FBS opponents, the second-fewest in the country in that span. No program has given up fewer points per possession against FBS opponents since 2018, as Clemson’s 0.85 points allowed per possession since the start of last season makes Clemson the only program in the country to allow fewer than a full point per drive to opponents.

COMPLEMENTARY FOOTBALL

Clemson’s offense and defense have both been dominant in possessions following turnovers since the 2018 ACC Championship game. Since that time, the Tigers hold a 179-21 advantage against opponents in points off turnovers.

Clemson outscored opponents off turnovers, 134-21, in 2019, and its +7.53-point-per-game differential off turnovers ranked third in the country.

3,000/1,500/1,000 TRIOS

For the second straight year, Clemson will welcome back a quarterback with at least one 3,000-yard season to his credit (Trevor Lawrence, 2018 and 2019), a running back with at least one 1,500-yard season to his credit (Travis Etienne, 2018 and 2019) and a receiver with a 1,000-yard season to his credit (Justyn Ross, 2018).

In the past two seasons, the 2018 and 2019 Clemson Tigers became two of only 21 teams since 2010 to produce a 3,000-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver. By virtue of Lawrence, Etienne and Tee Higgins each reaching their respective thresholds in 2019, Clemson became the first program this decade to produce a player in all three categories in back-to-back seasons.

Clemson was the only school to produce a 3,000/1,500/1,000-yard passing/rushing/receiving trio in 2019.

ETIENNE VS. THE NATION

Since becoming Clemson’s starting running back entering the 2018 season, Travis Etienne has accrued 3,272 rushing yards and a national-best 43 rushing touchdowns. In that time frame, Etienne has single-handedly outrushed 15 FBS programs, including six Power Five schools.

ACTIVE FBS LEADER

Etienne enters 2020 as the nation’s active leader in career rushing yards (4,038), career rushing touchdowns (56) and career total touchdowns (62). He holds leads of 23 and 24 in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns, respectively, over the next-closest active player.

ACC RECORD-HOLDER

With a multitude of Clemson career records in hand, Etienne’s next run on record books has come at the conference level, where he is the all-time ACC leader in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns and ranks in the Top 5 in 200-yard rushing games and yards per carry.

Presently, Etienne ranks fifth according to conference thresholds in which players qualify by reaching 1,000 career rushing yards. Etienne’s average is the best in conference history by any player with at least 200 career carries.

10+ YARDS PER CARRY

Etienne’s explosive 2019 season opener resulted in an average of 17.1 yards per carry against Georgia Tech, which at the time was the second-best single-game average of his career (19.1 vs. Louisville in 2018). Against Louisville in mid-October, he ripped off 192 yards on 14 carries for a 13.7-yard average, and in early November, he posted a career-best 23.6-yard average on nine carries for 212 yards against Wofford.

Etienne’s 12 games averaging double-digit yards per carry on at least five attempts has passed Colin Kaepernick for the most by any FBS player since 2000.

Etienne averaged at least 7.0 yards per carry in each of his first three seasons. Etienne is the only FBS back since 2000 to average 7.0 yards in three different seasons and joins Kaepernick (three years) as the only two FBS players at any position to accomplish the feat.

AIR ETIENNE

Etienne had a career-high 98 receiving yards on three receptions and two touchdowns in Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl win in last year’s College Football Playoff. The 98 receiving yards were the most by a Clemson running back since C.J. Spiller recorded 104 receiving yards at Miami in 2009 in a 40-37 overtime win. It marked the first time a Clemson running back had two receiving touchdowns in a game since 2010 when Jamie Harper scored two at Auburn.

After entering the year with 17 career receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns, Etienne was much more involved in the passing game in 2019, recording 37 receptions for 432 yards and four touchdowns. His 432 receiving yards in 2019 ranked as the third-most in a season for a running back in Clemson history, trailing only the 2008 and 2009 production of Clemson legend C.J. Spiller.

A similar performance in the passing game in 2020 could help Etienne join elite company in college football history. Only 11 players in FBS history have finished their careers with at least 4,000 rushing yards and at least 1,000 receiving yards. Etienne has already exceeded the 4,000-yard mark on the ground for his career and enters 2020 with 567 career receiving yards. With 433 receiving yards in 2020, Etienne would become the 12th FBS player all-time to join the 4,000/1,000 club.

QB WIN STREAKS

After entering his first four career games at Clemson as a reserve, Trevor Lawrence was named Clemson’s starting quarterback heading into its game against Syracuse on Sept. 29, 2018. Clemson’s victory in that contest was its first with Lawrence as a starter.

Lawrence would go on to guide Clemson to another 24 straight wins as the starting quarterback prior to suffering his first defeat in the College Football Playoff National Championship game to conclude the 2019 season. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Lawrence’s 25-game winning streak is tied for the sixth-longest by a starting quarterback in major college football history and one shy of being the longest to open a career.

INTERCEPTION AVOIDANCE

While mild panic emerged from national observers about Lawrence’s eight interceptions early in 2019, Lawrence finished the 2019 season with a school record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception and still in possession of Clemson’s career interception rate record. He remains the only qualified passer in school history to throw an interception on fewer than two percent of pass attempts.

As a freshman, Lawrence set a then-single-season Clemson record by closing the 2018 season with 169 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. Lawrence threw an interception on his 13th pass attempt of the 2019 season opener against Georgia Tech, ending a streak of 182 consecutive pass attempts without an interception.

As a sophomore, Lawrence shattered school single-season and multi-season records in that category in 2019. Lawrence enters 2020 having thrown a school-record 239 pass attempts without an interception, the fifth-longest streak in ACC history.

Last season, Lawrence set a school record for consecutive completions in a single game, completing 18 consecutive passes at South Carolina to break the mark held by Cullen Harper (15 vs. Central Michigan in 2007) and Kelly Bryant (15 vs. Miami in 2017). His 18 consecutive completions tied ACC single-game records held by Virginia’s Michael Rocco (vs. Miami in 2012) and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky (vs. James Madison in 2016).

LAWRENCE'S LEGS

Lawrence had a Clemson team-high and career-best 107 rushing yards on 16 carries and scored on a career-long 67-yard run in Clemson’s 29-23 win against Ohio State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. The 67-yard run was the longest by a Clemson quarterback since Woody Dantzler had a 75-yard scoring run at Virginia in 2000.

Lawrence finished 2019 with 563 rushing yards on 103 carries, an average of 5.47 yards per rush. That rushing average was the best in a season for a Clemson quarterback since transitioning away from single-wing formations in 1953.

Between his 36 passing touchdowns and nine rushing touchdowns, Lawrence was responsible for 45 touchdowns this season, tied with 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson for fifth-most in a season in ACC history.

ALL-CONFERENCE O-LINE

As Clemson climbed into the elite echelon of college football programs during the last decade, observers posited that Clemson’s rise coincided with the rapid ascent of its offensive line play.

During Clemson’s five-year run of College Football Playoff appearances from 2015-19, the Tigers produced a total of 22 All-ACC selections along the offensive line, including 10 first-team honors. Clemson’s 22 all-conference selections by offensive linemen are the most of any Power Five program, and its 10 first-team selections are tied with Oklahoma for the most in that span.

SACK DIFFERENTIAL

Clemson’s success in its 29-1 run since 2018 has been powered in part at the line of scrimmage, where Clemson holds an 101-35 edge over opponents in sacks in that time frame. Clemson’s +66 margin in sacks since 2018 is by far the top differential in the country, as no other program can boast a sack differential greater than +55 since 2018.

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