Winning 10 games in a season isn’t exactly a new accomplishment at Clemson. The Tigers have done it now 11 years in a row.
But how this particular group of Tigers did it draws comparisons to another one recently that pulled it off in remarkably similar fashion.
“Man, I love this team,” Swinney said. “Very similar to our 2014 team that we had.”
The 2021 Clemson team capped the latest double-digit win season in program history with a win over Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl, which is exactly how that ’14 team ended its season. Then named the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Tigers from seven years ago also beat a Big 12 team, Oklahoma, in Orlando to finish the season with an identical 10-3 record.
“Ironically, right here in this bowl game,” Swinney said. “That was one of my favorite teams as well.”
It was the last on the list of likenesses between that team and this one.
Just like D.J. Uiagalelei taking over for top overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence this season, Clemson entered the ’14 campaign having to replace one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history. That season, Cole Stoudt stepped in for Tahj Boyd, who capped his collegiate career the previous season by helping lead the Tigers to an Orange Bowl win over Ohio State.
Like this season, Clemson opened that 2014 season with a loss to Georgia, though, with a final score of 45-21, it was a much higher scoring affair than this year’s 10-3 slugfest. That Clemson team also had two losses before September was over, the same way the 2021 squad did after it fell on the road in double overtime at North Carolina State.
But much like that ’14 team that won nine of its final 10 games and six straight at one point, the 2021 team rebounded with wins in eight of its last nine games, including a six-game winning streak to close out a season that, like the ’14 team, didn’t include ACC or national titles.
“I have never judged a team based on a championship. Never. Ever,” Swinney said. “Because you know what? There’s a lot of things that go into winning a championship. Just because you don’t win the championship doesn’t mean this team was any less committed than our 2018 team that won it all. This team was just as committed and just as passionate. Unbelievable group.
“I judged him based on their commitment to excellence, how they handled themselves off the field, what type of teammates they are, how they respond, how we practice, the camaraderie and chemistry, the development of the leadership, their passion, their toughness. That’s how I judge these teams. This team is right there with any team I’ve had.”
Some of the statistical similarities are hard to ignore, too, for a couple of teams that relied heavily on their defenses for success. The Tigers scored 26.3 points per game this season, just four off the pace of the 2014 offense (30.8).
Clemson had the nation’s top overall defense (260.8 yards allowed per game) and the No. 3 scoring defense (16.7) in 2014. This season, the Tigers rank eighth (305.5) and second (14.8) in those categories, respectively. Clemson also owns the nation’s second-best red-zone defense compared to the 13th-best in ’14 and the third-best third-down defense (34.1%) compared to the best in the country (24.7%) seven years ago.
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