Clemson Football: National analysts won’t buy into Dabo Swinney’s post-portal program philosophy until he proves it

Dabo Swinney made changes to his staff and recruiting policies, but if he can't put Clemson back on a positive trajectory, his reluctance to use NIL to recruit talent will be blamed for the program's gradual decline
Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) gives a high five to Head Coach Dabo Swinney
Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) gives a high five to Head Coach Dabo Swinney / Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

Clemson Football finished with nine wins and was ranked in the final AP Top 25 for the thirteenth season in a row.

Dabo Swinney has led Clemson to nine wins and a ranking in the final AP poll in fourteen of his fifteen full seasons leading the Tiger program. He also has two national championships, six appearances in the College Football Playoff, and eight Atlantic Coast Conference championships.

Despite this, there is a lot of doubt in Swinney’s current philosophy of how he runs Clemson’s program.

Most of that doubt revolves around the Tigers’ reluctance to utilize the transfer portal in a way that can yield commitments from talent leaving other programs.

While some of the way-too-early predictions for 2024 favor Clemson winning the ACC, a few of them favor a different ACC program, and they often cite the Tigers’ lack of incoming transfers as one of the reasons.

The Sporting News’ Bill Bender mentions it right up front.

"“Clemson did not make the College Football Playoff the last three seasons, but the Tigers still averaged 10 wins per year in that stretch. Dabo Swinney is still sticking with his approach – the Tigers lost 10 players to the transfer portal including safety Andrew Mukuba, who went to Texas. Cade Klubnik is back, and the Tigers still have enough depth through recruiting to win the ACC and make some noise in the new 12-team format. It's on Swinney to get this program back in the national championship hunt. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against Georgia (Aug. 31) is a chance to prove it.”"

Bill Bender

ESPN writer Mark Schlabach cites other needs first but wraps it up by reminding everyone that the Tigers have taken no transfers.

"“The current state of Clemson football can be perceived as both a glass half-full and half-empty. The Tigers won nine games in 2023 for the 13th season in a row, and they'll probably finish in the top 25 of the final AP poll for the 13th consecutive season as well. That being said, they were 4-4 at the end of October and out of the CFP race for the third straight season. If the Tigers are going to return to the sport's upper echelon in 2024, quarterback Cade Klubnik must continue to improve, and coach Dabo Swinney needs to find some weapons. Shipley entered the NFL draft, and Collins, the team's second-leading receiver, transferred to Notre Dame. Hiring former Ole Miss coach Matt Luke to coach the offensive line should help an inconsistent unit. The Tigers lost a handful of players to the transfer portal but haven't added any yet.”"

Mark Schlabach

Both Bender and Schlabach could have placed Clemson behind Florida State in their polls and been perfectly justified simply mentioning the other reasons they cited: Klubnik was far from elite in 2023, the offense has good weapons but not great weapons, and the offensive line couldn't even manage to pull correctly. All of these are fair reasons to not expect the Tigers to return to the top of the ACC. Oh, by the way they must play Georgia right out of the gate.

They didn’t need to mention the transfer portal to make a legitimate argument why one ACC program or another is likely to finish ahead of Clemson in 2024 but it is almost automatic when people try to explain why they doubt the Tigers. They both also directly stated the responsibility to change the direction of the program is directly on Swinney.

As informed Clemson fans know, the program has attempted to recruit from the portal. The Tigers have reached out to several players in the portal over the past three offseasons. They have offered multiple transfers. They simply haven’t landed any other than a couple backup quarterbacks, and the reasons have become very clear.

Swinney has commented publicly that tampering is the biggest problem with college football right now. Most insiders tell us that the Tigers don’t tamper with players at other programs, so it is reasonable to believe they are at a disadvantage with many players before they even enter the portal.

The other challenge is that Swinney favors a recruitment method where NIL compensation is not emphasized. The benefits of this philosophy can be seen in the numbers. Clemson has a better retention rate than most programs because the focus is on players who want to be in the program instead of players who join the program because they want the NIL offered.

The Tigers tend to use their NIL towards retention rather than acquisition. Clemson has seen success with this philosophy in high school recruiting. It is presumed to be a major disadvantage when recruiting the transfer portal.

So while national writers tend to simply summarize the net result - players lost to the portal but no return from the portal – there are more layers and logic behind the ‘madness’ that does yield positive results for the program.

It would be very fair to dismiss reliance on Clemson’s negative net in the transfer portal as a reason to continue to doubt the program if not for one blunt reality.

Dabo Swinney has yet to prove his philosophy works. He can't show proof of concept that he can turn the program around and return it to national prominence while only using NIL to retain instead of recruit.

Swinney is a heck of a sales person and has sold his reasoning to those who are looking to buy, but observers who don't have skin in the game are looking for that proof of concept, and the bottom line results just aren't there.

Analysts won't change their presumptions until Clemson Football returns to a consistent positive trajectory, even if it is incremental

Both Bender and Schlabach acknowledge the success of the program and the long-term consistency, but that isn’t the standard that the Clemson program is judged by anymore. The expectation for the program is that they should be challenging for national relevance. When they cite the portal problems, they are saying that is a reason preventing Clemson from returning to Top 4 relevance.

Swinney himself would likely lament that expectation. He has pushed back against fans for not being grateful for the success they still have and how difficult it is to win at a high level. The harsh reality is that he has yet to prove his strategy for the program at a much simpler level.

With one exception, Clemson Football has taken a step backward every season since the advent of the transfer portal and the relaxation of transfer rules. They might have been small steps, but they were still in the wrong direction.

The portal was created on October 15, 2018, shortly before Clemson won its third national championship. Since that achievement, the Tigers can claim to have taken a step forward only once: in 2022 when they improved their record by half a game (10-3 in 2021, 11-3 in 2022) and won the ACC championship after not winning it the season before.

They can only claim to have improved since the advent of the portal following one out of the past five seasons.

While it is true that the Tigers have maintained a nine-win season for thirteen years in a row, it is disingenuous to pretend the program's calling card wasn’t ten-win seasons for a long time – until it could no longer be claimed. That streak ended this year at twelve seasons.

There is no debate that Swinney has made logical changes to improve his program over the past five years that have yielded positive results but haven't shifted the overall trajectory of the program.

Swinney used to only allow official visits for recruits during the regular season. He realized that this was hurting his chances with recruits who were accelerating their recruitments, and changed to an official visit weekend in June, which has yielded success.

Swinney used to rely heavily on internal ‘protégé’ hires. While Wes Goodwin has worked out so far, he dismissed Brandon Streeter – even following that one season with a half-game improvement – because he acknowledged the offense wasn’t good enough.

Following this season, he replaced another internal hire, Thomas Austin, and long-time coach Lemanski Hall with veteran coaches Matt Luke and Chris Rumph, which seemed to be in response to the criticism that the coaching staff was lacking experience.

Swinney has adjusted recruiting to compensate for the accelerated calendar, he has modernized the offense, and he has brought experienced coaches onto his staff to improve player development.

The one thing he hasn’t changed is his belief that the program is better off not using NIL to recruit players, either from high school or the portal.

Swinney is starting to run out of things to tweak and change. If the program can’t show consistent improvement, even small incremental steps, he will continue to be criticized for how he applies his recruiting philosophy to the transfer portal.

It is bizarre that a coach with Swinney’s career accomplishments could come under such scrutiny, but the reality is that college football has changed significantly since the last time Clemson sat on top of the mountain. Swinney is also isolated, as none of his direct peers embrace a similar philosophy. Those that do run programs that are at a disadvantage that Clemson does face, either due to academic or economic restrictions.

A continued streak of at least eight wins for fourteen seasons in a row will just continue to fuel the narrative that Swinney’s recruiting philosophy has the Clemson program pointed in the wrong direction.

Swinney still has to prove himself in this new world of college football, but you can make sure your offseason starts with a win thanks to BetMGM. Just sign up, deposit $10 or more and then bet $5 or more on any NFL Wild Card game this weekend. You'll win $158 in bonus bets, win or lose! Sign up with BetMGM today.