Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was talking about his offensive line during fall camp, hyping a group that had four new starters, including a true freshman at left tackle. This was going to be a terrific unit, he insisted. It would be a strength of the team.
It seemed unlikely, but Swinney’s optimism knows no boundaries.
Take the injury-prone QB. Sure, Deshaun Watson looked sharp in limited work as a true freshman, but even if he lived up to the advanced billing, could he really stay healthy? Swinney never doubted.
There was that rebuilt defense that lost so many key veterans from a unit that finished No. 1 in the country in 2014. How could it possibly thrive again with so many new faces stepping in? Defensive coordinator Brent Venables wasn’t quite as optimistic as his head coach, but he insisted that there was enough talent to thrive if the work ethic was good.
Just a few minutes into the new season, star wide receiver Mike Williams went down with a neck injury. Suddenly the offense was without its best deep threat, but Swinney and Watson pledged allegiance to an underachieving senior, a walk-on and a tandem of true freshmen.
None of this should have worked. It’s crazy to think that all those moving pieces would fit together just right, and that Clemson would run the table through 14 weeks and nearly upend mighty Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. But that’s what happened.
“We recruited well; we saw them in the spring,” Swinney said. “Everybody wants to get caught up in who’s left and what you don’t have. I don’t get caught up in all that.”
That’s a luxury few coaches in the country can afford, but after 2015, it’s safe to say Swinney is firmly among the elite. That’s what this season was really about for the Tigers.
It’s not that success is new for Clemson. The Tigers had won 10 games or more in four straight seasons heading into 2015. They had employed one of the most explosive offenses in the nation one year and one of the stingiest defenses the next. They had won one bowl game after another over a big-name opponent. They had hauled in a slew of heralded recruits.
It’s just that the last hurdle was frustratingly out of reach.
For the bulk of Swinney’s tenure at Clemson, the Tigers thrived most of the time but collapsed just often enough to stifle the highest of hopes. In 2015, things were different.
It was partly due to Watson, who not only stayed healthy for a full season but also established himself as the marquee quarterback in college football. He rushed for more than 1,100 yards, threw for more than 4,100, carried his team to some crucial wins down the stretch and nearly toppled Alabama single-handedly.
“He’s special in every regard,” Swinney said of his quarterback.
But the 2015 campaign was also about that offensive line, which by Week 3 had replaced every starter from last season and still was one of the most successful units in the country.
It was about the defense, the one that waved goodbye to so much talent but never missed a beat. The Tigers had stars emerge across the board, from Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd to Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley.
When Williams went down in Week 1, walk-on Hunter Renfrow stepped up. When kicker Ammon Lakip was suspended, walk-on Greg Huegel stepped up. When Lawson went down in the Capital One Orange Bowl, freshman Austin Bryant stepped up. And on and on it went.
There was enough talent on the roster that rebuilding a defense wasn’t a problem. Clemson is a program that simply reloads.
There was enough will to win in the locker room that losing stars along the way wasn’t a roadblock. Walk-ons and freshmen filled the voids.
There was enough magic in Death Valley that Clemson didn’t run into that annual heartbreak, not until the final minutes of the final game, when even then the Tigers continued to fight until the last second ticked off the clock.
This season wasn’t about Clemson’s arrival. Swinney had his team perched on the brink of massive success all along. But it was the year when everything clicked, and the nation couldn’t overlook the Tigers any longer.
Lawson and Dodd and Alexander will be gone in 2016, along with a host of others. That’s life in college football, particularly for teams recruiting superstars. But what 2015 showed is that Swinney was right to be optimistic. There’s no reason to think any other way.
Clemson is an elite program now, and this past season, Swinney believes, was just the start of a long run of success.