Happy anniversary, Dabo Swinney. Even you must be surprised by what’s happened to your life.
Ten years ago Tuesday — Jan. 1, 2019 — you relinquished a 14-3 halftime lead in your first game as Clemson’s full-time head coach. You lost your first bowl game, to Nebraska, 26-21. Your offense mustered just 4 rushing yards. Afterward, you shook the hand of a man with more pedigree and more promise, Nebraska first-year coach Bo Pelini.
At the postgame press conference, you marveled at Nebraska’s junior defensive tackle, who recorded eight tackles, including 3.5 for loss, two sacks and a blocked field goal.
“That No. 93 is a heck of a player, an NFL player,” Swinney said.
You lamented a third-and-goal incompletion in the final minutes, when Husker safety Matt O’Hanlon wrestled the ball away from All-America tailback C.J. Spiller.
“I thought it was a touchdown, I thought it was game over,” Swinney said. “I already had visions of going over and shaking coach Pelini’s hand and getting on back to Clemson.”
Pelini, meanwhile, looked forward to the future in Lincoln: “People are excited. Our kids are starting to believe and showing how good they are.’’
Who on Earth at that moment would’ve anticipated where those two men would be 10 years later? Who would’ve imagined where those two programs would be?
Clemson, which humiliated undefeated Notre Dame Saturday, is back in the national championship game for the third time in four years. Swinney has only one peer right now, Nick Saban.
This is the same guy who jumped from wide receivers coach to interim head coach midway through 2008 following Tommy Bowden’s resignation. The same guy who nearly got run out of town following a 6-7 season in 2010.
At the time, ESPN’s Travis Haney tweeted: “I'll bet in 5 years we'll all look back, amazed, and wonder why Dabo was given keys to that great program. (Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips) will, almost certainly.”
Haney wasn’t alone. Almost everyone in the college football punditry thought Swinney was a dead man walking. And almost everyone thought Pelini would lift Nebraska back to the top 10.
But Swinney, over time, proved to be a far more aggressive recruiter. Where Pelini looked for excuses, Dabo looked for ways to innovate. He hired Chad Morris and Brent Venables as coordinators. Players gained spirit and confidence from his personality.
By New Year’s 2013, when Clemson beat LSU in the Peach Bowl and secured a top-10 season, it was pretty clear that Dabo was the right man for the job.
Of course, we don’t need to re-litigate the Pelini era. The biggest lesson from the 2009 Gator Bowl may be this: It’s really, really hard to project the future. That's humbling for Nebraska fans who believe so deeply in Scott Frost. But it’s exciting, too.
Because nobody foresaw that Swinney would make four consecutive College Football Playoffs while Pelini was going 27-22 in four seasons at Youngstown State — Bo is probably one more 4-7 season from another pink slip.
And if that’s all true, then why can’t the next decade present another surprise? Why can’t a program that hasn’t recorded a top-10 season in 17 years(!!) rise to the top of its conference again?
New Year’s Day 2009 feels like a very long time ago. But the Huskers have resolutions for a turnaround.
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» Notre Dame belonged in the playoff. Please, please don’t allow people to rewrite this history. No, the Irish didn't win a conference title. You know who else didn’t? Georgia.
The Irish beat 10 Power-Five opponents; the Bulldogs beat eight. The Irish lost zero games; Georgia lost two.
And don’t give me this conference title hogwash. Clemson beat Pitt in the ACC championship game. Washington beat Utah. Ohio State beat Northwestern. Those aren’t exactly marquee wins, either.
Still, reputable analysts were making the argument Saturday that Notre Dame didn’t belong. That the selection committee should consider “NFL talent” and Vegas point spreads in judging potential playoff teams.
Few thought Miami would beat Nebraska in 1983. Same with Penn State vs. Miami in 1986, Oklahoma vs. Florida State in 2000, Ohio State vs. Miami in 2002, Texas vs. USC in 2005.
Blowouts happen, but this system was created to give contenders a chance to prove their worth. Georgia had its shot in the SEC championship game and lost. Notre Dame and Oklahoma deserved their chances. The fact that they failed doesn’t mean the committee was wrong.
That said, those two programs need to find a solution to their big-game woes. Notre Dame has lost seven consecutive major bowl games dating back to 1995. And Oklahoma has dropped six straight BCS championship/playoff games dating back to 2003.
» I thought Dan Wolken wrote the weekend’s best column, about the repetitiveness at the top of college football and how that’s a big problem.
I'm a proponent of expanding the playoff and I must admit, it's not because I think Ohio State or UCF or Georgia would beat Alabama or Clemson. No, I just want to see more entertaining games. Because I'm not getting much entertainment in the semifinals.
Growing up, Florida State and Miami were great every year. But you couldn’t pencil them into the national championship game. Not even close. Each season produced tremendous unpredictability.
That’s gone in the playoff era.
» Finally, on Black Monday in the NFL, can we all take a moment and recognize the futility of the Washington Redskins?
This is the team I’ve been cheering since their 1987 Super Bowl run. Since ’91, the Redskins have zero 11-win seasons.
The Patriots have 16. The Steelers have 13. Even the Browns and Lions have one!
While the Dolphins, Bengals, Packers and others make coaching changes, Washington fans can’t fire their owner. We’re stuck.
Oh well, at least our $94 million quarterback has one healthy leg.