By Will Vandervort.
Before the 2014 season began, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney gathered his team and preached to them on how there was no going back. They had worked too hard since he took over on that somber day of October 13, 2008 to go back to that point.
In the previous three seasons, thanks to an elevation in coaching, recruiting and the overall commitment to the football program, Clemson had gone from a team that could not get over the hump to one that has become one of the nation’s most consistent winners.
“We knew what we had here and we knew all it took was for us to do it,” Clemson safety Robert Smith said.
And though it was a challenging road, they did do it and in return perhaps set the scene for what is to come.
Instead of taking a step back, the Tigers move forward by believing in themselves like their head coach did in them. There was no going back to the seven-, eight- and even nine-win seasons that the program had been bogged down in for so long.
No, the quest to be the best was the standard and everyone was “All-In” in doing so, even when it looked bleak following a 1-2 start to the season and injuries at running back, quarterback and on the offensive line.
But thanks to what turned out to be the nation’s No. 1 ranked defense, Clemson stayed strong even after a devastating loss to Florida State, a game the Tigers controlled throughout only to lose in the end because of their own miscues.
“We’ve just got good leadership. We have great leadership,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Guys like to play. Again, they’re good people. So I knew we would play our tails off.”
Clemson closed the season by winning nine of its last 10 games. They weren’t pretty at times, but each week the Tigers somehow found a way to get the job done. Whether it was Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams, Stephone Anthony, Adam Humphries, Artavis Scott, Mike Williams or Deshaun Watson, there was always someone that seemed to step up at the right time and make a play.
“We took on a challenge and we competed. We showed everyone who Clemson is,” Smith said. “We want to be talked about as one of those elite teams throughout the country. I’m proud I’m leaving here knowing Clemson is on that stage.”
The Tigers closed the season with three straight victories, including blowout wins over South Carolina (35-17) in the regular-season finale and Oklahoma (40-6) in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The win over the Sooners gave the program its fourth straight 10-win season, joining Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and Northern Illinois as the only programs to accomplish that feat.
Clemson also ranks fifth in winning percentage since 2011 and seventh in overall team wins. Included in those wins are victories over college heavyweights Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
“A lot of that Clemsoning is going away,” Smith said. “I’m just proud of where this program is at and where it has come from since I have been here. I saw a lot go on from facilities to coaches to players. I witnessed it with my own eyes and see how this program has changed over the last four years.”
And thanks to what Smith and his teammates accomplished this year, it appears the Clemson program isn’t going anywhere but forward.