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Clemson's Recent Struggles: Has the Game Passed Dabo Swinney By?

Written by Connor D'Aquila ⏐ Writer ⏐ Twitter:@ConnorDaquilaIT

Photo via Keith Srakocic | AP Photos

Clemson’s recent struggles have not been a secret, and head coach Dabo Swinney has found himself under a microscope from fans and media. A rant this week on a local radio show only exacerbated the high levels of attention they are receiving. Since their 2019 national championship loss, the Tigers have come down from seeming immortality. From 2015 to 2019, they never lost more than one game in a regular season, appeared in four national championships, and secured two titles, a far cry from the 4-4 record they sit at currently. In 2020, a loss against Notre Dame bumped them from the number one ranking, but they still ended the year competing in the CFP. The next two years ended without CFP berths and with three losses overall, which would be great for most programs but not relative to what Swinney’s teams had been doing. As this year appears to be an even greater regression, let's look into Coach Swinney and the program to see what happened.

Dabo’s Philosophy

The college football landscape has recently changed in major ways, but Dabo has appeared steadfast in his commitment to the traditional ways of running a program. Both NIL and the transfer portal have completely altered recruiting and certain programs have capitalized in big ways off of it. Colorado is a perfect example of the power of the transfer portal while schools like Miami and Tennessee demonstrate what NIL can do for talent. It could certainly lead to a reset in the powers that be in CFB and has left many wondering if Clemson will be left by the wayside. Now, none of this is to say that they found success only from elite recruiting classes. According to the 247Sports Composite, in the four years prior to their first championship, their highest final recruiting ranking was ninth. In fact, their only top-five classes under Dabo have come since 2020, the beginning of the relative struggles. Generally, it has been about finding quality players and developing them in the system.

All this being said, it is going to be tough to continue to compete with the top programs, especially without the transfer portal. While Swinney once said he would quit coaching should college players begin to get paid, Clemson has begun to embrace the changes, although they have not gone to the extremes that others have. More impactful to the program is the attitude toward the transfer portal. As teams around the country stock up each offseason, the Tigers continue to stay quiet. In each of the past two cycles, they took only one transfer, both of whom were backup quarterbacks unlikely to see the field. In 2021, they had no transfers. These mark the years since immediate eligibility was installed, but Swinney has been consistent since the creation of the portal that he would not use it. Is it a coincidence that they have not won a national championship since 2018, the same season the portal was created? I would say no. When players continue to leave the program, and they merely replace them with freshmen, it is difficult to stay relevant year after year.

Even Notre Dame, which has fairly significant restrictions on who they can accept out of the portal, has seen players make major impacts. Sam Hartman is the first to come to mind, but even Equanimeous St. Brown and Blake Grupe have played major roles. This year, Thomas Harper and Javontae Jean-Baptiste have been impact players on the defense after spending the past season on different squads. Florida State’s two best players (outside of Jordan Travis), Jared Verse and Keon Coleman, arrived at the school from other programs and have led them to a number four ranking. Looking at some of the most successful quarterbacks in recent years is especially powerful. Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr., and Quinn Ewers are some of the top in CFB this year and all started at other schools. We could also look to Joe Burrow, Baker Mayfield, and Jalen Hurts as past great examples. Especially as Clemson's quarterback play has suffered in these down years, it is certainly reasonable that a star transfer could help a lot.

Brent Venables

Another notable loss in the last two seasons is Brent Venables. Their defensive coordinator since 2012, many would argue he was the most important part of their staff. Since leaving after the 2021 season to be head coach at Oklahoma, the defense has not looked the same. Notre Dame fans saw this a year ago, as a fairly weak ND offense had its way the whole game against Clemson. Interestingly, in the pre-Venables era, Dabo was only 40-23 with the Tigers, but it quickly turned around once he arrived. It is very possible that Venables had a major impact on their success, but it is also unlikely he was the whole cause.

There is no way to fully diagnose the issues, and it is likely a combination of factors. These seasons could also be anomalies and we will soon see the Clemson of old again. I would argue that the transfer portal has had the biggest impact on the team, but it is hard to ignore the difference in performance with and without Coach Venables, who has also put together a talented team at Oklahoma. If losses continue, the pressure on Dabo will only grow, and it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

This week we saw a five-minute rant on live radio responding to a caller who expressed his displeasure with their recent performance. Swinney referenced their 12-straight ten-win seasons, the multiple national championships, and the “vocal minority” of fans who cause all the problems. In his typical fashion, he has stood by these comments, and it was warranted to be angry. These comments should be expected, however, given the departure from so much recent success.

As for this weekend's game, this team still has a lot of talent, and the Irish should not take them lightly. Playing in Death Valley is never easy, and the Tigers are going to show up for this one. None of this is meant to imply that Clemson’s program is finished or that ND will steamroll them in this game. I expect a very competitive matchup, but it is undeniable that the team has not looked the same in recent years.


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