CLEMSON, S.C. -- By just about any standard, it has been a defining run for Dabo Swinney and Clemson.
The Tigers have won 32 games over the last three seasons, winning an ACC championship and a BCS bowl game and recording a pair of top-10 finishes in the polls along the way.
Not since 1990 had Clemson won 10 games in a season, but the Tigers have reached that plateau each of the last three seasons, including 11 wins each of the last two. With nine wins in 2014, this senior class could become the winningest class in school history.
The Tigers have also collected eight wins over nationally ranked foes during the last three seasons. For perspective, Florida State and Ohio State each have seven, Georgia six and Texas three during that span.
So when you start talking about some of the most resurgent programs in college football, make sure Clemson is near the top of that list.
Now, to suggest that Death Valley was ever truly dead would be a stretch. But what isn’t a stretch is that Swinney has pumped the kind of life and energy back into Clemson football that has the people in these parts dreaming big again.
“We have higher expectations every year,” said Clemson All-American defensive end Vic Beasley, who is part of what should be one of the deepest defensive lines in college football. “There’s still another step, and everybody knows what that step is -- winning a national championship.”
Of course, before the Tigers can think national championship, they need to figure out a way to win their state championship.
That’s really been the only rub under Swinney, who is entering his sixth full season as Clemson’s coach.
He has lost his last five games to South Carolina, Clemson’s longest losing streak in series history, and it hasn’t helped that the guy on the other end of those beatings, coach Steve Spurrier, has reveled in twisting the proverbial knife.
Anybody who really knows Spurrier knows it’s not personal. That’s just the way the Head Ball Coach rolls. Always has and always will.
Swinney, to his credit, doesn’t take it personally, but that hasn’t made these last five losses to the Gamecocks any less nauseating, especially when Clemson has pretty much owned every other SEC team it has faced.
“He is who he is. Coach Spurrier has been that way forever. It’s not like it’s just me he gets after, so at least he’s consistent,” said Swinney, whose six wins over SEC teams since becoming Clemson’s head coach in the middle of the 2008 season are the most in the nation among non-SEC coaches. “He’s been that way his entire career whether you like him or don’t like him. Sometimes you wish he’d just let the focus stay on the players and the game and maybe not keep it stirred up.
“But the best thing we can do is start beating them.”
Swinney’s lone win over South Carolina came after taking over for Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season, but nobody on the current Clemson roster has ever beaten the Gamecocks.
And not that anybody needs to be reminded, but there are clocks strategically placed in the Clemson football complex counting down the minutes to Nov. 29 when South Carolina pays a visit to Death Valley.
“It’s really frustrating for us, especially for me and a lot of the guys who were raised in South Carolina,” Clemson senior receiver Adam Humphries said. “We know what it means to our fans and what it means to our football team. If we want to get to that main goal of a national championship, we’ve got to win that game. It’s so vital to where we stand at the end of the season.
“You can’t get away from it in this state. Each year, we feel like we have the better team, but we just slip up with turnovers and a few plays here and there that cost you ballgames.”
A year ago, Clemson turned it over six times in a 31-17 loss to South Carolina yet still went into the fourth quarter with a chance to win.
“I go back and look at that game and examine how did we physically play, and to be honest with you, if you just graded it out, we won in every phase of the game,” Swinney said. “We lost on the scoreboard. We outrushed them, outpassed them, outdefended them. We did everything. But you can’t win when you have that many turnovers.”
It was a similar story against Florida State last season. The Tigers turned it over four times against the Seminoles and never had a chance in a 51-14 blowout loss at home.
In their two losses a year ago, the Tigers were on the wrong side of a 10-1 turnover margin.
Senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said it gets down to playing their best in their biggest games.
“We’re 22-0 against everybody else except Florida State and South Carolina the last two years,” Jarrett said. “For us to get where we want to be, we’ve got to beat Florida State and South Carolina. When you’re playing against top-five teams, you’ve got to play your best game. That’s what everybody walking on that field needs to understand, that it’s going to take our best game.”
Swinney doesn’t buy into the notion that it’s become mental with South Carolina. To his point, Clemson more than held its own in the line of scrimmage last season.
Spurrier even told Swinney when they bumped into each other on the recruiting trail this offseason that the only thing the Gamecocks could muster against the Clemson front was Connor Shaw running the quarterback draw.
“I think you have to give them some dadgum credit,” Swinney said. “Everybody wants to just say that you’re losing to your rival all the time. But how about the fact that, ‘Yeah, we’ve been a top-10 team, but so have they.’ We finished seventh, and they finished fourth. They have been a great football team the last few years. Coach Spurrier and his staff have done an unbelievable job. I hate it, but I’ve got to look beyond the rivalry and evaluate everything.
“You’re not only talking about a rival game, but you’re trying to beat a top-five team in the country along the way. When you play top-five teams, those games are hard to win. But we feel like we are a top-10 team here at Clemson, and we’ve got to become that top-five team. That’s kind of the next step for us. So you evaluate everything you’re doing, what you’re doing and how you prepare, and you’ve got to give them credit. They had a quarterback down there [Shaw] who was special and was a great winner. A couple of years they were just better than us. There’s no question about that. But I don’t think they were better than us the last couple of years. They just won that day. They earned it and performed better on that day.”
The dynamic of the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry has also changed and raised the stakes.
“Used to be, outside of this state, nobody really paid much attention to Clemson-South Carolina because Clemson pretty much dominated,” Swinney said. “South Carolina was never really a factor from a national standpoint. Clemson was here and there and had some good runs, especially in the '80s when they won the championship. Now, this rivalry has become much more of a national game because it has national implications of BCS bowls, top-10 rankings, and that has never been the case in this rivalry.
“It’s just a different time, and it happens to be my time to be at Clemson. But it’s going to turn back, no question. We’ll get it turned back.”