Something happened at Clemson last year many Tiger fans never thought they would see again – their Clemson Tigers winning another national championship.
It had been 35 years since Homer Jordan ran around trying to run out the clock on that hot-and-humid January night in Miami’s Orange Bowl, while leading Clemson to a 22-15 win over Nebraska. The win allowed the program to claim its first national championship.
For the next decade, Tiger fans clamored for another one, but each year their beloved Tigers fell just short of reaching the ultimate goal despite winning five more ACC Championships and beating the likes of Penn State, Oklahoma and West Virginia in bowl games.
A few teams after the glory years of the 1980s flirted with greatness and gave the fans hope again, like Clemson’s 8-0 starts to the 2000 and 2011 seasons. Those years saw the Tigers peak in the top 5, and even win its first ACC Championship in 20 years in 2011. However, both seasons were more fluff than substance as they wilted in the heat of the pressure when the stakes got hot.
So Clemson fans waited patiently. Dabo Swinney’s 2012 and 2013 teams showed promise for a program on the rise with back-to-back 11-2 seasons, but could it get over the hump and compete with mighty Florida State, who won another national championship in 2013, along with three straight ACC titles.
The 2015 season was a magical run that no one saw coming. The Tigers finished the regular season undefeated for the first time since 1981, matching its 12-0 record. They then won the ACC Championship and beat Oklahoma for a second straight season in the 2016 Orange Bowl to advance to the national championship game to play Alabama.
Clemson was finally back at the pinnacle. However, it had one more rock to climb before it could get to the top of the mountain. Beating Alabama, and head coach Nick Saban, would be the hardest task these young Tigers faced all season and it was a task they were not ready to achieve at that time.
Clemson’s 45-40 loss to the Crimson Tide in the 2016 National Championship Game was a difficult pill to swallow for a fan base so hungry for a winner, especially considering the Tigers had outplayed Alabama all night.
Following the game, Swinney promised it would not take the Clemson football program 34 years to return the title game and when they do, they would be better prepared to handle it.
The 2016 season started with so much promise and so much hype. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy and Clemson was No. 2 in the preseason polls behind Alabama of course.
Despite some close calls against Auburn and Troy, fourth-quarter rallies to take down Louisville and Florida State, plus an overtime-win to survive NC State, Clemson stayed the course and was in position to possibly play for a national title once again.
However, no one told the University of Pittsburgh of the Tigers’ plans. The Panthers came into Death Valley and stunned the 81,048 fans piled into Memorial Stadium with a last-second field goal to beat No. 2 Clemson.
Everyone thought that was it. Again, they thought they had seen another Clemson team come close to getting back to the promise land, only to fall short in the end. But as fate would have it, the No. 3 (Michigan) and No. 4 (Washington) teams also lost that evening, marking the first time since 1985 the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams all lost on the same day.
When the College Football Playoff rankings came out the next week the Tigers only fell to No. 4. They still held their own destiny in their hands. However, this time they learned their lesson.
Clemson demolished Wake Forest by 21 points in Winston-Salem the next week, while embarrassing rival South Carolina, 56-7, in the regular season finale. In the ACC Championship Game, the Tigers took care of business and beat Virginia Tech before getting to the Fiesta Bowl and destroying No. 3 Ohio State, 31-0, in one of the best bowl performances in Clemson history.
After a long and challenging journey, the Tigers were back to where they were the year before. They were one win away from a national championship and once again Alabama stood in their way. But as Swinney promised, this time they did not have to wait 34 years to return to the title game and this time they were more experienced and prepared for what was arguably the greatest championship game in college football history.
With 2:01 to play, down three points and 68 yards standing in the way of a national championship, Watson guided the Tigers on a “Drive to a Championship.” After hitting Mike Williams for 24 yards and tight end Jordan Leggett for 17 yards, the Tigers found themselves standing on the doorstep about to kick the door in.
From the two-yard line, with six seconds to play, Watson sprinted out to his right and found a wide open Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning touchdown with one second left on the clock.
Finally, for the first time in 35 years and eight days since beating Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl, Clemson was again national champions.
“I am so happy. To see the fruits of our labor and see all the hard work pay off. We trusted in each other and this was the result of that tonight,” senior linebacker Ben Boulware said afterward. “I am so happy for our fans and everyone who has been a part of our program. Clemson has waited 35 years for this national championship, and we are bringing it home.”
Now the question is can the Tigers get there again or will they have to wait another 35 years. Swinney said after the game they like to do everything in their program in twos and sometimes more.
After winning the ACC for the first time in 20 years in 2011, Swinney promised they would not wait 20 years to win it again. He stayed true to that promise. Clemson won the ACC again in 2015 and then repeated as champions for the first time in 28 years in 2016.
After going to the 2012 Orange Bowl, Swinney again promised it will not take 30 years to get back to the Orange Bowl Classic. Again, he kept his word. Two years later the Tigers beat Ohio State, 40-35, in the 2014 Classic and then knocked off Oklahoma in the 2016 Orange Bowl.
Also, after going 21 years without winning 10 games in a single year, the Tigers have now put together six straight 10-win seasons.
That brings us to Swinney’s promise following the 2016 National Championship Game. He again promised it would not take 34 years to return to the title game, and again he held true to his word. Clemson only needed a year to return to the national championship game.
When his team wrapped up its national championship celebration in Death Valley in front of 70,000 fans, Swinney again made a promise. He said he didn’t know when, but he promised it would not be 35 years again before the Tigers won the program its third national championship.
Could it be this year?
Granted, Clemson has to replace Watson, Boulware, Williams, Leggett, running back Wayne Gallman, wide receiver Artavis Scott, center Jay Guillermo, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, safety Jadar Johnson and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley.
However, it returns seven starters on defense, including Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant on the defensive line. Linebackers Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel are back as are four of five starters on the offensive line, including All-American Mitch Hyatt and two-time All-ACC right guard Tyrone Crowder.
Granted, the Tigers will have some new pieces. Can Deon Cain step up and fill Williams’ shoes? Can Ray-Ray McCloud be as good as or better than Scott? Will Tavien Feaster or C.J. Fuller take over for Gallman at running back?
Though very talented, will Clemson’s inexperience in the secondary show up or will skill and athleticism take over?
And of course, the most important question of all, who will replace Watson at quarterback? Is Kelly Bryant ready to lead his teammates to greatness or will a freshman named Zerrick Cooper or Hunter Johnson steal the job and start their own legacy like their predecessor?
“Best is the standard, and every single year we are on a quest to be the very best we can be,” Swinney said. “It is important that everybody here understands what I’m fixing to say, and these players understand it. Winning the national championship is great … These trophies, they are beautiful and it is going to be displayed and it is going to be great. But these trophies, they are not going to define us. The culture of our program is what we will be defined by.”
The culture Swinney is referring to is based on how Clemson is building men through their Clemson Experience. Swinney says they have built a culture that is based on love, serving and caring for their players. It’s a culture built on serving and doing things right in the community. It is a culture to teach young people to love and care for other people.
“That is what our culture is going to be defined by,” Swinney said. “Coach Gene Stallings taught me that the fun is in the winning, and I have carried that to my players. The fun is in the winning, but it is how we win that will sustain us. That is our focus. It is a daily commitment to being the very best that we can be and we will continue to do that.”