Clemson Football: Is Dabo Swinney’s program the best in CFB?

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 8: Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers, left, and head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide pose for a photograph after speaking to members of the media during the College Football Playoff National Championship Head Coaches Press Conference on January 8, 2017 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 8: Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers, left, and head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide pose for a photograph after speaking to members of the media during the College Football Playoff National Championship Head Coaches Press Conference on January 8, 2017 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) /

Spring practice is underway for Clemson football, the defending national champions and although it’s a new season-an old question still lingers. Is Clemson the best program in college football?

Since the backside paw printing 44-16 dismantling of No. 1 Alabama to win the 2018 national title on Jan. 7, one question is answered by few and avoided by many. 

Is Clemson the best program in college football?

All-American defensive tackle Christian Wilkins was asked a similar question by ESPN analyst Rece Davis in the post game interview. “Was this a changing of the guard game, where now you are the program where against everyone else is measured?” Davis said.

Wilkins replied. “Well, that’s up to everybody else.”

Clemson football has won two of the last three national championships, so why wouldn’t they be the best.

The arguments for Alabama are easy. They have won five national championships since 2007 and head coach Nick Saban is renowned as the best coach ever on the collegiate level.

But after a second national championship loss to Clemson, Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney seem ready to unseat them and may already be looking down on the college football world from the hill in Death Valley.

The two dominant programs have a pair of national championships and identical 55-4 records over four years. During that span, America has watched the two teams battle to a 2-2 draw in the College Football Playoffs with the Tigers holding a 2-1 edge in championship games.

Game I was a back and forth affair ending in a 45-40 score. In Game II, Clemson took shots like Rocky did in Rocky IV but withstood the blows to win 35-31. Alabama won Game III, a defensive battle, 24-6. In that game, the teams gained a combined 449(Alabama 261, Clemson 188) total yards. Game IV was the most surprising because of the 28 point margin, and Bama’s “can’t be stopped” offense’s inability to score in the second half.

Over four games, statistically, Clemson has the edge over The Tide in total first downs(97 to 73) and averages in points(31 to 29), total yards(432 to 388) and passing yards(324 to 226). Alabama averaged more rushing yards(162 to 109) and forced 5 turnovers to 3.

When comparing the stats, it’s worth noting the Tigers faced defenses in Game I and Game II that were reputed as “great” and a team in Game IV called “Saban’s best ever.”

Turnovers were huge in Game III and Game IV. The 14 points scored by Clemson, off the two interceptions by Tua Tavalioga, pushed the margin to 28 just like the 14 points off the two Kelly Bryant interceptions were large in Game III. Clemson also fumbled twice in Game II but overcame them to get the walk off win with a second left on the play clock.

In the past, a successful formula to beat a Saban coached team included mobile quarterbacks and/or use of trick plays. Clemson had mobile quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Kelly Bryant in the first three matchups, and Trevor Lawrence, a pocket passer in Game IV, but no noticeable trick plays.

But it was Saban who got tricky with an onside kick in Game I after a game-tying touchdown at 24 with over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. He also attempted an unfathomable fake field goal on the first drive of the second half in Game IV trailing 31-16. Saban obviously felt defenseless against the Clemson offense and needed to desperately shift the momentum in both games.

“We were tired on defense and weren’t doing a good job of getting them stopped, and I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win,” said Saban after the Game I victory.

After Game IV, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and Tavalioga pointed to the team’s errors and mistakes as factors affecting the outcome of Game IV. They also said there was nothing that Clemson did on either side of the ball that made the difference in the game. That would contradict what Saban said at halftime. During his halftime interview, he said the Clemson offense was doing some copy cat things that others had done against them, and they had not practiced for it.

Saban also referenced the statistics in Game IV(Clemson 482 to Alabama 443) as an indication that the game was closer than the final 28 point margin. Statistics were a bit different in Game II, a four point final margin, when Clemson had 511 yards in total offense to Alabama’s 376. By reverse logic, Game II wasn’t as close as it appeared. The Clemson defense played a large part in both games. They stymied the Alabama offense on third down by limiting them to 6 first downs in 28 attempts(2 of 15 in Game II and 4 of 13 in Game IV).

If any team can point to self inflicted wounds in the series, it’s the Game I Tigers. They had one turnover, gave up an onside kick and kickoff return and left tight end O.J. Howard uncovered most of the night. Howard picked up a key third down and two long touchdowns. Now that’s “shooting yourself in the foot.” The elimination of one or two of those defensive lapses and Swinney could be a three-time national championship coach and winner of three of four against Saban today.

Besides the original question, maybe two additional questions should be answered.

Was Clemson as good as Alabama and Swinney, a pretty dang good football coach all along?

Statistics and the state of the series suggest the Tigers had a case all along for being a close equal to The Tide, and Swinney more than equal in head to head matchups with the best in the business.

Saban looked noticeably perplexed in three of the four games, and his perplexity had nothing to do with departing coaches but everything to do with the Clemson coaching staff’s pre-game and in game strategies.

Look. Alabama has been dominant for the past decade and have earned the right to be tagged the best team and the standard in college football. No one questions that. It’s just time to do more than add Clemson to the discussion of “best” and “standard.”

For Clemson, “Best is the standard” is the mantra of the football program anyway and with every win and championship, the Tigers are becoming harder to ignore.

As they say, “To be the best, you have to beat the best” and Clemson has done it more than others and particularly in an environment where Alabama is unbeatable. Swinney’s the only coach to beat Saban in a national title game, and he’s done it twice.

Some may say it’s too soon to say Clemson is the standard and Swinney, a strong challenger to Saban’s throne.

Who decides? Do we listen to analysts and Vegas, the same people who picked Clemson to lose to LSU, Ohio State(twice), Oklahoma(twice), and Alabama(four times), and stated Swinney would be out coached by Les Miles, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, and Saban.

Clemson football recruiting coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter doesn’t need to hear from anyone. He knows who the best team is today. “Obviously, Alabama is an unbelievable program. But we’re the best one right now. And it’s hard to argue that,” he said during his Q&A for February’s Signing Day Wrap up event.

At least one analyst agrees with Streeter too. Davis couldn’t get Wilkins to say whether the win over Alabama was also a changing of the guard from Alabama to Clemson as the best program in college football. But when he himself was asked the same question by Scott Van Pelt, host of Sportscenter With Scott Van Pelt, Davis didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes.” He continued, “Instead of being the team pursuing Alabama at the top spot. Clemson is now sitting at the top……..And to me, Clemson tonight, at the moment, became the premier program in college football.”

Before Game III, Alabama was motivated by revenge, a tombstone and by anyone who dared questioned their inclusion in the 2017 College Football Playoffs.

Going into this season, revenge again, now having “two” tombstones in the Graveyard, a sweet dance, and comments from Streeter and Davis will undoubtedly be motivational tools in Tuscaloosa where, at the moment, the skies aren’t the only thing that’s blue.

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Meanwhile, in Clemson, spring practice continues and the drive for another championship is just as intense as before.

Is Clemson football the best program in CFB?

Presently, the numbers speak for themselves and just aren’t debatable.

44-16, 15-0, 2 titles in 3 years, and No. 1 in 2018.

The answer to the question is YES.