Granted, it’s been a while.
With six straight College Football Playoff appearances — and just three losses over the previous three seasons — Clemson has fallen well short of expectations this season after starting it as a top-5 team. Sitting at 2-2 overall and 1-1 in ACC play heading into Saturday’s home game against Boston College, the 19th-ranked Tigers have lost two games before October for the first time in seven years and have plummeted outside the top 10 of the national rankings for the first time since 2015.
It’s made for more uncertainty and more questions than Swinney has faced about his team in quite some time, but Clemson’s head coach made a point during his weekly press conference Tuesday to remind everyone his program has actually been here before.
“I just laugh at people who act like we’ve never had any adversity around here,” Swinney said.
In 2009, Swinney’s first season as Tommy Bowden’s successor, the Tigers lost three of their first five games before rebounding to win the Atlantic Division and earn a berth in the ACC title game. Clemson won just six games a year later.
“I’ll never make it here,” Swinney said of that season, tongue in cheek. “I’ll never be successful as the coach here.”
The Tigers experienced the other end of the spectrum in 2011, starting 8-0 before losing four of their last six games. That season ended with Clemson giving up 70 points to West Virginia in an Orange Bowl loss.
Clemson bounced back to win 22 of 26 games over the next two seasons, but Swinney vividly remembers getting “embarrassed” by Florida State in 2013 and a fifth straight setback to in-state rival South Carolina State that season, too. The 2014 season brought more failure against the Seminoles, a game in which Clemson had the ball inside FSU’s 1-yard line at one point only to go backward and eventually miss a 40-yard field goal in a 23-17 overtime loss.
“Now that’s some adversity,” Swinney quipped.
Despite also losing then-freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson to a torn ACL, Clemson still went on to win 10 games that season and has won double-digit games every year since. But there have been some other regular-season hiccups, too. Just last season, the Trevor Lawrence-less Tigers fell in double overtime at Notre Dame before beating the Irish in the ACC title game rematch.
Clemson is coming off another double-overtime loss, this one at the hands of North Carolina State last week. Once D.J. Uiagalelei’s fourth-down pass intended for Justyn Ross near the goal line capped the Tigers’ 27-21 loss, Wolfpack fans stormed the field at Carter-Finley Stadium in celebration.
“That’s what it means to beat Clemson. That’s what’s been built here because we’ve always responded,” Swinney said. “This is the same thing. This is an opportunity for us to re-instill some things, grow some young people up and teach. Sometimes there are lessons that, when you lose, you can’t teach when you win. This is a unique opportunity for us as leaders to respond.”
Saturday’s loss may have dashed the Tigers’ hopes of returning to the CFP and leaves them with plenty of work to do if they’re going to repeat as ACC champs. The offensive ineptitude is a major concern with Clemson ranked no better than 99th in scoring, rushing, passing and total yards. And injuries, including the losses of starting defensive tackles Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis, are starting to pile up on the defensive side of the ball.
From Uiagalelei’s “inconsistent” throwing mechanics to a retooled offensive line still working on cohesion to everything in between, Swinney said the Tigers’ strides have to start with improvement in the execution of details and fundamentals.
“You’ve got to get better at the basics before you’re going to get better at anything else,” he said.
But Swinney knows as well as anybody there’s still some time to turn things around.
“Thank God,” Swinney said. “If the season was over after everybody had two losses, there would only be like 60 teams that would get to play football this weekend. Our September has stunk. It didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but we’ve got an eight-game season. And we’ve got to try to go make it the best we can starting this weekend.”