The Clemson Tigers were once a force to be reckoned with in the college football landscape. Known for producing plenty of NFL-caliber talent each season, Clemson set a new standard for the program in 2015, reaching the College Football Playoff and the national title game The next year, the Tigers returned to the title game and got their revenge on the Crimson Tide, securing the program’s first championship since 1981. Dabo Swinney would lead the program to a playoff berth each season until 2021.
Since then, the Tigers have fallen further and further from playoff contention due to various factors, primarily a reluctance to dive into the transfer portal waters. Swinney’s hesitance to the new style of roster-building has allowed other top programs, including rival Florida State, to gain more talent and close the talent gap that the Clemson staff built through a decade of recruiting. This season, Clemson is all but eliminated from playoff contention after two losses in September. How did the Tigers fall so far, so quickly? Is Dabo Swinney to blame? Blaze college football writers discuss what’s gone wrong for Clemson:
For nearly a decade, Clemson has produced some of the best that college football has to offer in the past decade, and the influence of Swinney stands at its forefront. He was known from the beginning of his tenure with the orange and white for being an incredibly emotionally driven coach, and someone who prioritizes the old-school style of player development of growth. This style led to the development of household names to come through Clemson, such as Deshaun Watson, Travis Ettiene, Trevor Lawerence, and Christian Wilkins to name a few.
Since nearly the beginning of the College Football Playoff era, Sweeny’s Tigers have inserted themselves into the conversation of perennial contenders in the sport, and while Dabo had been in the head coach’s chair since 2008 and had seen the Top 25 year in and year out, it was not until 2015 when the actual fruit of his stature finally began to payoff. Starting that year, the Tigers would go on to make six consecutive appearances in a College Football Playoff that only allowed four teams a year to participate in, including appearing in three national championship games and winning two of them. In a weak ACC, the Tigers were the kings of the jungle.
However, in recent years, the rest of the conference has caught up. The sport has rapidly changed from Clemson’s heyday, due to the craze over NIL and the transfer portal reinventing the wheel. Unfortunately for Swinney and the Tigers, they didn’t spin with it. Since the Tigers last CFP appearance in 2021, they have lost 33 players to the portal, the second most in the ACC only behind North Carolina. In addition, 2023 was the first time in nearly a decade that Clemson did not welcome in multiple five-star recruits on campus.
And yes, maybe the Tigers dominant win on the road at Syracuse on Saturday was a bright sign for things to come, but 3-2 through five weeks is not what Clemson fans expect from Swinney and this program, not when the bar has been set so high.
I’m not saying that Clemson’s dynasty is over yet. They played a solid game against then No. 5 Florida State and Syracuse. But, there are signs that there are some flaws in Clemson football’s play (and where the team needs to improve in talent), which held them back against Florida State and could continue to throughout the season.
First is the fact that Clemson had clear momentum in the game, only to cough it up with the Seminoles’ game-tying scoop-and-score.
Clemson has had slow starts at Death Valley before, but always found a way to win at the height of their power. Think about their game against then unbeaten Syracuse last year, where they overcame four turnovers to come back from being down two possessions to win. Even if it meant changing their quarterback during the game.
Against FSU, they were at the Seminoles’ 29-yard line when Kalen DeLoach made an unblocked rush on Klubnik, which resulted in a fumble and a scoop-and-score.
There could have been better communication on that play. Or, they could have picked up a better offensive linemen to make sure DeLoach was blocked.
It is also important to note how DeLoach makes the rush. He is lined up to possibly face a receiver, but his body is facing the quarterback. So, Klubnik does not realize there is a free runner nor an open receiver that can gain some good yardage.
Klubnik is also looking left, and does not see DeLoach rushing. If he looks right, he can throw it away for a third and long. While the Tigers have kicking problems this year, they were stellar on third down, going 6/14. All conversions were from a 3rd and 5 or longer. In other words, they could have gotten points on this drive.
Other than the missed 30-yard field goal deep in the 4th quarter, that might have been Clemson’s biggest missed opportunity.
The second key moment for Clemson is the overtime drive, where the Tigers were unable to convert a first down.
Junior running backs Will Shipley and Phil Mafah had a great day on the ground, with Shipley logging 69 yards and a touchdown and Mafah logging 67 yards. While Shipley had a nine yard gain on second down, Clemson decided to pass on third and fourth downs.
Mafah is a bowling ball at 6’3, weighing 230 pounds. If anything, the Tigers could run him up the middle to get the first down, especially knowing Klubnik was shaky through the air after the scoop-and-score.
My biggest concern for Clemson is if Cade Klubnik can mature under center this year. If he unravels, the rest of the unit does too.
Problems could ensue in the coming weeks for this side, as their next two games are up against No. 18 Miami, anda solid North Carolina State. One more loss for the Tigers, and they will have their second three-loss season in the past three years, something they hadn’t had once since 2014.
The decline of Clemson football dates back much further than their loss to Duke in their opener this season. Clemson is now 4-4 in their last eight games, including the rough end of their season last year. Besides their sub-par play on the field, Clemson’s inactivity over the offseason also raised concerns about the level of talent on their roster.
Last offseason, Clemson brought in only one transfer, as Dabo Swinney continued his hard stance against using the transfer portal. Meanwhile, programs such as Florida State, LSU, and Colorado took full advantage of the talent in the portal by adding dynamic playmakers to significantly improve their squads, wich has paid off in their success.
“For us, we have to be willing to adapt”, said head coach of Florida State Mike Norvell. “We’re going to address the needs and try to improve our program.”
As Clemson continues to handicap itself by not using the portal, the once massive talent gap between the Tigers and other teams in the ACC will only narrow. Additionally, the transfer portal has become a resource for traditionally less talented ACC teams to acquire players that can compete with Clemson’s top recruits.
We’ve seen Clemson be tested by ACC competition before, but its 1-2 start to ACC play is unacceptable to Clemson’s standards and a sign that significant changes must be made.
Dabo’s stance has caused grumblings among the Clemson’s boosters, and even people inside the Tiger’s building are beginning to question his methods. Even though Dabo is not on the hot seat, the pressure from the fanbase and leadership is certainly palpable.
With the transfer portal becoming a valuable commodity for the top teams in football, it is only a matter of time before Dabo Swiney changes his philosophy to adapt to the new college football landscape.
Dabo Swinney’s resistance to indulge in the transfer portal is an issue of overwhelming passion for loyalty and tradition. Recent offseasons have been captivating, as star players from every type of program are leaving to find a bigger role somewhere else. Whether that’s to play more, become more visible for NFL scouts, or to simply win a national championship: like it or not, that’s how the game is played today.
Swinney disagrees, believing that anyone who is loyal to him and the Clemson program is capable of achieving the standard he set under stars like Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. The Tigers have continued to be winners on the recruiting trail, scoring 11 straight recruiting classes with a top-15 finish. However, this past offseason, Clemson only brought in one transfer, a backup quarterback named Paul Tyson, who has never had a starting role in his college career.
The heavyweight matchup with Florida State earlier this season had a “changing of the guard” feel, primarily due to the philosophical differences between Swinney and Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell. The Seminoles narrowly defeated the Tigers 31-24 in overtime, and it was the transfers who Norvell brought in who made the biggest difference. Wideout Keon Coleman, the prized target in the most recent portal cycle, caught five passes and two touchdowns. His teammate, Johnny Wilson, an Arizona State transfer, led the team with 94 receiving yards in the win.
Clemson has always thrived with legendary playmakers that they developed from recruiting. From recent products like Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins, to seasoned NFL veterans DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Williams, the Tigers have always been able to rely on their ability to recruit big talent to win games. As the transfer portal has blossomed in popularity, today’s players look to shine and make money right away, which is rarely the case for the Tigers.
While Swinney’s squad was just a missed 29-yard field goal away from upsetting the then-No. 4 Seminoles, the talent gap is growing wider from their Tallahassee rivals. The steady decline of Clemson is well-documented, and without a shift in philosophy under Swinney, the two-time national champion could find himself elsewhere as the Tigers look to regain the spotlight.