Clemson’s recent success has been particularly pronounced in the midst of Clemson’s six-year streak of College Football Playoff appearances since 2015. Clemson and Alabama have the most wins in the country in that span, with those teams combining for five out of six national championships in that span.
Clemson won 69 games during the 2015-19 seasons, the most in a five-year period in the AP Poll era (since 1936). Clemson’s accounts for three of the six best five-year runs in terms of total wins in the AP Poll era.
Clemson has a 121-18 record since starting its current stretch of 10-win seasons in 2011. Only Alabama (127-12) has more wins since 2011. The Tigers also have the second-highest winning percentage (.871) in that time frame.
There have been 15 seasons of 14 or more wins since the NCAA split Division I in 1978. Clemson accounts for four of those 14-win seasons, matching Alabama for the most 14-win seasons in that span.
Clemson enters 2021 riding a streak of 10 consecutive seasons with 10+ wins. The program’s 10th consecutive 10-win season in 2020 made Clemson only the third program in FBS history to produce a “double-double” — double-digit wins in a double-digit number of consecutive seasons.
The record for consecutive 10-win seasons is 14, set by Florida State (1987-2000). Alabama is the only other program with an active streak of at least 10 straight 10-win seasons.
The Tigers have 17 10-win seasons in school history, with 10 coming under head coach Dabo Swinney. The 2019 season was Clemson’s sixth with at least 12 wins, with Swinney sitting at the helm for five of them.
Of the 130 active FBS schools, only 12 programs have won at least six games every year since 2015. That number dips to six when pushing the win total to eight, and drops all the way to two (Clemson and Alabama) when setting the bar at 10 wins.
In October 2019, Clemson recorded its 750th all-time victory, becoming the 15th FBS program (and first ACC program) at the time to reach 750 all-time wins.
Every January, Head Coach Dabo Swinney conducts his first official meeting with his new team. The first order of business in the meeting is to “reset the room,” reorganizing the seating arrangement with seniors in front and all succeeding classes in order behind them in the team auditorium.
Each of Clemson’s last four senior classes have placed themselves among select company in college football history. The 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 Clemson seniors account for four of only 12 four-year classes in FBS history to reach 50 career years. That includes the 2018 and 2019 groups that are tied with the 2018 Alabama seniors for the most wins in FBS history (55 wins in four years).
The 2021 Clemson seniors (excluding “Super Seniors” using their extra year of eligibility afforded by the NCAA) are 39-3 since 2018, the most wins of any active class in the country.
With its sixth straight conference title last year, Clemson became the first program ever to win 20 ACC Championships, five more than Florida State, which ranks second with 15.
Clemson was the first program in the conference championship game era to win six straight conference championship games. Clemson also became the first ACC program to win six consecutive outright titles, as Florida State had a streak of nine straight ACC titles, but that streak included two co-championships that prevented Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles from ever winning four straight titles outright.
In 2020, Clemson and Oklahoma’s six-year streaks of outright titles made the two programs the first among current Power Five programs to win at least six straight outright titles since Oklahoma (12 from 1948-59) as part of the now-dissolved Big 8 Conference.
Including titles from its days as a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Southern Conference, Clemson has 26 conference championships overall, also the most of any current ACC school. Duke ranks second among the ACC’s current membership with 18 overall conference titles, including 11 Southern Conference titles and seven ACC titles.
The Tigers won the 1900, 1902 and 1903 SIAA Conference championships under John Heisman, then the 1906 SIAA title under Bob Williams. Clemson also won the 1940 and 1948 Southern Conference titles under Frank Howard. Howard won eight total conference titles, including two in the Southern Conference and six in the ACC.
Clemson Football’s six straight titles extended a program record and tied for the third-longest ACC championship streak in Clemson Athletics history.
The record is eight in a row by Clemson’s men’s soccer program between 1972-79. Dr. I.M. Ibrahim was the Clemson coach for all eight of those titles. Ibrahim also led Clemson to national titles in 1984 and 1987 and joins Dabo Swinney as the only Clemson coaches in any sport to win two national championships.
Chuck Kriese took the Tigers men’s tennis program to seven straight titles from 1983-89. The Clemson women’s tennis program won six straight between 1982-87. Mary King won the first title and Andy Johnston won the last five in that run.
Early in his head coaching tenure, Dabo Swinney laid out his belief to then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips that the Tigers needed to add tough non-conference challenges on top of their tests in ACC play to serve as a foundation for the program’s growth.
“I had a conversation with Terry Don and said, ‘Terry Don, I know we are not very good right now, but we need to play people because that is going to help me teach and help me develop the culture and the mindset that you have to have to win at the highest level,'” recounted Swinney. “I didn’t think we had that, and that’s what we committed to. That’s what we’ve done.”
That scheduling philosophy and culture change has resonated in the Clemson program, and since 2013, no team can claim more wins against Power Five Conference opponents than the Tigers.
On an annual basis, Clemson has finished the season atop the country in wins against Power Five opponents four times since the institution of the College Football Playoff in 2014, including four of the last six years. That includes 13 wins against Power Five opponents in 2018, the first team ever to reach that figure.
As Clemson was in the midst of the winningest decade in school history and tied for the third-winningest decade in major college football history, Head Coach Dabo Swinney would frequently point out that Clemson accomplished its goals by finding the right fits for its program in recruiting rather than chasing recruiting rankings.
Swinney often noted that Clemson accomplished its immense success in his tenure despite never signing the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. That changed in 2020, when ESPN ranked Clemson’s 2020 group as the nation’s top recruiting class. Clemson also recorded its highest rankings in both Rivals (No. 2) and 247 Sports (No. 3) history.
Clemson has signed the nation’s consensus top player in two out of the last four recruiting cycles, welcoming quarterback Trevor Lawrence in 2018 and defensive tackle Bryan Bresee in 2020.
Clemson and LSU are the only teams in the country to sign Rivals’ No. 1 recruit twice in a three-year span since Dabo Swinney was named head coach at Clemson.
Clemson, LSU and Alabama (two each) are tied for the most No. 1 recruits signed since 2009 per Rivals’ rankings. Clemson, Georgia and USC (two each) are tied for the most in that span per the 247 Composite.
Clemson’s recruiting classes have finished in the top 15 of at least one of three primary recruiting services (ESPN, Rivals and 247 Sports) every year since 2011. Clemson is one of only seven schools to produce a Top 15 class in each of the last 11 recruiting cycles, a group that also includes Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and Ohio State. After that group, the next longest active streak of Top 15 classes is six (Florida).
While proud of his incoming classes, Head Coach Dabo Swinney has long stated that a true ranking of a recruiting class cannot and should not published until four years later when the group can be evaluated on performance rather than potential.
Much to Swinney’s delight, The Athletic has annually assumed that role in recent years, re-ranking every recruiting class four years later to account for on-field performance.
For its re-rankings, The Athletic uses the following grading scale: 5 points: All-American, award winner, top-50 NFL Draft pick; 4: Multiyear starter, all-conference honors; 3: One-year starter or key reserve; 2: Career backup; 0: Minor or no contribution, left the program. The outlet also adds a bonus to each program’s class average, derived from its total number of wins from 2017 through 2020 (e.g.: For re-ranking the Class of 2017, Clemson won 51 games, so its class averages received a bonus of 0.51).
Even in its current stretch of recruiting success, Swinney has often pointed out Clemson often drops in rankings for signing smaller recruiting classes as a function of lower attrition than other programs, as well as noting that much of Clemson’s on-field success is a function of the program’s development, citing All-Americans like former three-star Isaiah Simmons or former two-star Nolan Turner. The re-rankings illustrate Clemson’s pristine recent track record of talent identification, culture fit, resource allocation and player development.
On average, Clemson finished 13th in the 247 Composite team rankings across the 2014-17 recruiting cycles. Upon re-ranking those groups, Clemson ranked 3.5 on average, a ratings bump of nearly 10 full spots. Each of those Clemson classes won at least 50 games in their four-year window.
Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s run of excellence in his decade-plus at Clemson has placed him in the company of college football legends.
Swinney boasts a career winning percentage of .809, sitting as one of only 13 head coaches in history with at least 10 seasons of FBS head coaching experience to post a mark of .800 or better.
Among the legends Swinney has already passed are College Football Hall of Famers Bo Schembechler (.775), Bear Bryant (.780), Henry Williams (.785), Bob Stoops (.798) and Bob Devaney (.806).
Head Coach Dabo Swinney leads the NCAA’s list of winningest active head coaches by percentage with a minimum of five years of experience.
Despite having coached fewer seasons than all of the coaches listed ahead of him and despite having never coached at lower NCAA levels, Swinney ranks 14th among active FBS head coaches in total wins.
While the term “Final Four” may still be the linguistic property of the men’s basketball tournament, since the advent of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014, Head Coach Dabo Swinney has had Clemson among the sport’s final four teams in each of the last six seasons, becoming the first coach to lead a team to six consecutive College Football Playoffs since the format’s institution in 2014.
The men’s college basketball tournament dates to 1939. In the history of that tournament, only John Wooden of UCLA (nine from 1967-75) and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke (five from 1988-92) coached teams to at least five consecutive Final Fours. With his sixth “Final Four” appearance in 2020, Swinney joined basketball’s Wooden as the only college football or men’s basketball coaches to take teams to six consecutive Final Fours in their respective sports.
During Wooden’s streak of nine straight Final Fours, he recorded eight championships and a semifinal loss. Coach K’s Blue Devils had two championships, a second-place finish and two semifinal losses in their run. Nick Saban’s Final Four history includes three championships, two runner-up finishes and a semifinal loss, while Swinney so far has two championships, two runner-up finishes and two semifinal losses.
Swinney is among only nine coaches in football and men’s basketball to record six career Final Four berths. He is one of only six with a winning record in Final Four games.
Swinney’s ability to place his team among the nation’s elite quartet is also illustrated by the polls. Clemson finished first in the AP Poll in 2016 and 2018, second in 2015 and 2019, third in 2020 and fourth in 2017. Swinney became just the fourth coach to record at least six consecutive top four finishes since the AP Poll began in 1936, an exclusive list that also includes Florida State’s Bobby Bowden (13), USC’s Pete Carroll (seven) and Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson (six).
Clemson’s streak represents the fifth time a program has had a run of at least six top four finishes in the AP Poll. Miami (Fla.) had a seven-year run from 1986-92 with two different head coaches leading the program.
Clemson has become a beacon of stability in the increasingly unstable environment of college football. Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney is in his 19th overall season at Clemson in 2021, including his 13th full season as head coach (and his 14th including an interim stint in 2008).
From the start of Swinney’s first season as full-time head coach in 2009 through 2020, there have been nearly 400 head coaching tenures in the FBS (excluding those by interims), but only one such tenure at Clemson. Clemson and Duke are the only schools in the ACC with only one head coach since the start of the 2009 season, and among the 11 schools ever to qualify for the College Football Playoff, only Clemson and Alabama have had only one head coach since 2009.
By date of initial hire (including interim hires), Swinney is the 12th-longest-tenured head coach in the FBS and the eighth-longest tenured among Power Five conference head coaches.
Clemson’s continuity at head coach has helped create continuity throughout the entire coaching staff.
Head Coach Dabo Swinney is perched atop ACC history in overall winning percentage with a mark of .809 He is the only coach in ACC history with a career winning percentage of .800 or better with a minimum of three ACC seasons.
Swinney also boasts an 85-17 record in ACC regular season games, a winning percentage of .833, ahead of College Football Hall of Famer Bobby Bowden’s previous conference record of .813.
On a non-percentage basis, Swinney enters 2021 ranked second in ACC history in career victories leading an ACC program. He is also one bowl victory shy of Bobby Bowden’s record for bowl wins as head coach of an ACC team.
Since the conference’s founding in 1953, no program has won more regular season games in Atlantic Coast Conference play than Clemson. With a win against Virginia last year, Clemson earned its 300th official regular season victory over an ACC opponent, becoming the first program to accomplish the feat.
Clemson opened the 2020 season at No. 1 atop both polls, marking the program’s second straight top preseason ranking. With the top selection in the AP Poll, Clemson became the sixth program since the inception of the preseason poll in 1950 ever to open consecutive preseason polls at No. 1, joining Alabama (2016-18), USC (2004-05), Oklahoma (1985-87, 1974-75, 1956-57), Ohio State (1969-70) and Notre Dame (1953-54).
Seeing Clemson at No. 1 at some point in the season has started to feel familiar in recent years, as 2020 represented the sixth straight year in which Clemson appeared at No. 1 in at least one AP Poll. Dabo Swinney joined Nick Saban (13) as the only coach in AP Poll history (since 1936) to lead a team to at least one No. 1 ranking in six consecutive years. Clemson, Alabama (13 from 2008-20) and Miami (seven from 1986-92) are the only programs to appear at No. 1 in at least six consecutive years.
Clemson has played 22 games all-time as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team in the AP Poll, tied with mid-century powerhouse Army for 14th-most in poll history. Twenty-one of those games have been coached by Dabo Swinney, 17th-most all-time.
A total of 22 coaches have led the AP’s top-ranked team into a game at least 15 times. Seventeen of the 22 coaches on the list are College Football Hall of Famers. Swinney holds a total of nine career victories over five coaches on the list, including two each over Stoops, Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier and one over Bobby Bowden.
After being named Clemson’s full-time coach in December of 2008, Head Coach Dabo Swinney set about securing his first signing class in 2009.
His first class, which he tabbed the “Dandy Dozen,” brought home Clemson’s first ACC title since 1991 during their junior campaign in 2011. All of Clemson’s signing classes under Swinney have at least one ACC title to their credit in their four years at Clemson, and every signing class since 2012 has earned at least one College Football Playoff berth.
Much like Clemson’s recruiting classes that have delivered above national expectation (see “Sign and Develop” section above), Clemson’s current decade of 10-win seasons has been built upon exceeding national expectations.
While Clemson’s national cache has resulted in elevated preseason perches in recent year years, prior to 2019, Clemson equaled or exceeded its postseason AP and USA Today rankings in comparison to its preseason rankings in eight straight seasons. That included little margin for error in both 2016 and 2018, as Clemson finished No. 1 by winning the national championship to exceed the school’s No. 2 preseason ranking both times.
Clemson exceeded its USA Today coaches poll preseason ranking eight straight years from 2011-18, the longest such streak in poll history.
Clemson’s first Top 25 matchup of the season came in a 42-17 win against No. 7 Miami on Oct. 10. Clemson added another Top 25 win with a 34-10 handling of No. 2 Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game.
Since 2015, Clemson is 23-5 (.821) against AP Top 25 teams, the best winning percentage in the ACC and third-best winning percentage in the country.
Clemson is also 12-5 (.706) against AP Top 10 opponents in that time frame, one of only five teams in college football to produce double-digit wins against Top 10 foes in that span.
Clemson’s success hasn’t been limited to teams ranked at the time of the game. Since 2015, Clemson leads the nation in winning percentage against teams that finish the season above .500.
With six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances, Clemson’s active playoff streak is as long or longer than:
– All 32 NFL teams– 29 of 30 MLB teams– 30 of 31 NHL teams– 27 of 30 NBA teams
So, despite only four teams making the College Football Playoff each year, Clemson’s playoff streak is as long or longer than 118 of the 123 teams in the four major professional sports.
Included below is a look at the only five teams in the four major professional leagues with active playoff streaks exceeding Clemson’s six:
Clemson has been ranked in the top 25 of 102 consecutive AP polls dating to the 2014 season, the second-longest active streak in the nation. That includes a streak of 93 straight top-10 rankings, tied for first in the country with Alabama, and 56 consecutive top-5 rankings, the second-longest streak in college football history.
In total top-25 rankings since 2011, Clemson has appeared in 157 of a possible 164 polls (95.7 percent). That is the tied for the second-most in the nation, trailing only Alabama.
The 2020 season represented Clemson’s sixth consecutive season finishing in the AP Top 5, tied for the fifth-longest streak in AP Poll history. On an individual poll basis, Clemson’s 56-poll streak in the AP Top 5 is the longest active streak in the country and tied for the second-longest in AP Poll history. Clemson’s current weekly Top 5 streak is the only active one in the country to predate the 2020 season.
Clemson was ranked No. 1 in nine consecutive polls to open 2020, its longest streak at No. 1 in school history. Clemson has been No. 1 in 25 polls all-time, 15th-most of any program behind No. 14 Army (27).
After opening the 2020 season as the preseason No. 1, Clemson held firm as the nation’s No. 1 team in the AP Poll until Nov. 8, 2020, when the Tigers dropped to No. 4 following a double-overtime loss at Notre Dame. In Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure, though opportunities have been limited, the Tigers have routinely responded well following dips in the AP rankings.
Under Swinney, Clemson is 25-4 in games in which it enters ranked lower in the AP Poll than it did in its previous contest. This includes the 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 season openers in which Clemson opened the season lower than its ranking from the final game of the previous campaign. Clemson has won its last 17 games when entering ranked lower in the AP Poll than in its previous game.
Clemson is 26-6 in games following a loss under Swinney, including season openers following a loss in the previous season finale. After a Sugar Bowl loss to conclude 2020, Clemson will attempt to improve that mark in the 2021 season opener against Georgia. Clemson has played 128 games since losing back-to-back contest, the longest active streak in the nation and the longest in ACC history, per ESPN. Clemson’s last time losing back-to-back games came in 2011.
Clemson enters 2021 riding a school-record 28-game winning streak in games played at Memorial Stadium.
Clemson’s 28-game home winning streak is the longest active streak in the country.
Since the advent of the College Football Playoff prior to the start of the 2014 season, Clemson is 47-1 at home. Clemson’s .979 winning percentage at home in that time frame is the best in the country, beating Alabama’s 45-2 home record in the same span.
Clemson has won 27 of its last 29 true road games. The Tigers have also earned victories in 43 of their last 49 games away from home overall. Clemson’s school-record road winning streak concluded in 2020. The final win of Clemson’s 14-game road winning streak came on Oct. 17 at Georgia Tech.
Clemson has won 52 of its last 55 games vs. ACC opponents, a time frame that features ACC Championship Game wins against North Carolina (2015), Virginia Tech (2016), Miami (2017), Pitt (2018), Virginia (2019) and Notre Dame (2020). Clemson has won its most recent game against every ACC team and owns a streak of at least two wins against every permanent member.
Clemson is responsible for three of the eight-longest winning streaks in ACC conference play all-time.
Clemson has won 34 consecutive games against teams unranked in the AP Poll, the program’s second-longest such winning streak since the inception of the poll in 1936. Clemson’s last defeat at the hands of an unranked squad came in 2017 at Syracuse.
Clemson’s longest winning streak against unranked teams came across the 2012-16 seasons, when Clemson won 46 in a row starting with a season-opening win against Auburn in 2012 and ending with an upset loss to Pitt in 2016.
Clemson is 108-12 against AP-unranked teams under Dabo Swinney, including wins in 85 of 87 games against those unranked teams since the start of the 2012 season.
Asked for the proper pronunciation of his name, Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei will walk you through the syllables of his surname of Samoan descent:
But he’ll also offer a helpful tip:
“Or you can just call me ‘Big Cinco.'”
Big Cinco is the 250-pound quarterback wearing No. 5 who enters 2021 as Clemson’s incumbent at quarterback after starting two games as a true freshman in the absence of Trevor Lawrence last season.
Uiagalelei was thrust into the starting lineup vs. Boston College in 2020 after Lawrence was diagnosed with COVID-19. With the win in his first start, Clemson improved to 20-13 all-time in games started by true freshman quarterbacks. He joined Steve Fuller, Willie Jordan, Patrick Sapp, Nealon Greene, Deshaun Watson and Lawrence as one of only seven true freshmen ever to start for Clemson at quarterback, and he joined Watson and Lawrence as the only true freshmen to win their starting debuts.
Uiagalelei impressed against Boston College as Clemson overcame an 18-point deficit to record the largest comeback win in the history of Death Valley. He completed 30-of-41 passes for 342 yards with two passing touchdowns and no interceptions, and also rushed six times for 25 yards with a rushing touchdown. His 342 passing yards were the third-most by a Clemson freshman (true or redshirt) in his starting debut, trailing Deshaun Watson’s 435 yards against North Carolina in 2014 and Charlie Whitehurst’s 420 yards against Duke in 2002.
A week later, Uiagalelei completed 29-of-44 passes for a career-high 439 yards with two passing touchdowns in a double-overtime contest against No. 4 Notre Dame. His 439 passing yards were the third-most in a game in school history and broke Watson’s school freshman record of 435. The 439 passing yards were the most ever thrown against Notre Dame by an opposing quarterback, breaking the mark of 425 held by USC’s Carson Palmer in 2002.
In his two starts, Uiagalelei completed 59-of-85 passes for 390.5 yards per game with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His 162.1 pass efficiency rating in those two starts was nearly 11 points higher than Lawrence’s 151.5 mark in his 11 starts as a first-year freshman.
Uiagalelei’s explosiveness in the vertical passing game and his deft decision-making in the running game led his highlight reels from 2020, but his ability to protect the ball was elite in his debut season as well.
Uiagalelei became only the second FBS player since 2000 to throw at least 115 passes and record at least five passing touchdowns and no interceptions, joining Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts for 2018.
Uiagalelei enters the season opener having thrown 117 career pass attempts without an interception. He is 48 attempts shy of tying the Clemson record to open a career, set by Cullen Harper (165 from 2005-07). By virtue of reaching the 100-attempt mark, he is also the Clemson career leader in interception percentage.
Despite starting only two career games prior to 2021, Uiagalelei is already one of only 13 quarterbacks in Clemson history to record at least one 300-yard passing game and is one of only seven to record multiple 300-yard passing games. He is already two 300-yard games shy of tying his position coach, Brandon Streeter, for fifth in school history.
Uiagalelei’s 146.4 pass efficiency rating in 2020 ranked fifth among ACC freshman quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts since 2002. Three of the four ahead of him include a Heisman Trophy winner (Jameis Winston) and two Heisman Trophy runner-ups (Deshaun Watson and D.J. Uiagalelei).
Clemson’s biggest impact among returning players could potentially come from one who didn’t play a snap in 2020: wide receiver Justyn Ross.
Ross missed the 2020 season after surgery following the diagnosis of a congenital fusion in his spine. While still attempting to hit medical checkpoints, Ross is tentatively expected to participate in spring ball in a non-contact capacity with an eye toward potential full participation in fall camp, a plan that was successful in current NFL receiver and former Clemson star Mike Williams’ return from a neck injury in 2016 en route to becoming the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Even though he missed the entire 2020 campaign, Ross still enters 2021 tied for 10th in career touchdown receptions in Clemson history.
Ross had two of the most productive first two seasons by a Clemson player in school history, recording 1,865 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns from 2018-19. His 17 touchdowns through two seasons were the most in school history, and his 1,865 yards in those years trailed only Sammy Watkins (1,927) and Artavis Scott (1,866) for the first two years of a Clemson career.
Included below is how Ross’ first two seasons stack up against the first two seasons of the players that populate Clemson’s Top 10 list in career touchdown receptions.
How does Clemson lose the all-time leading rusher in ACC history and still potentially get more explosive at running back?
Enter Lyn-J Dixon.
The senior from Butler, Ga. enters his fourth season at Clemson with the largest window of opportunity of his career. In fewer than 70 carries per year through his first three seasons, Dixon has averaged 6.60 yards per carry, second-most among qualified players in school history.
The only thing standing in Dixon’s way from major productivity was the All-American in front of him for three years wearing No. 9. With the departure of Travis Etienne, one of the most explosive backs in the history of the ACC and the history of college football, opportunity awaits for Dixon to seize the moment.
Dixon teased his explosiveness in his true freshman campaign in 2018, averaging 8.82 yards per carry. Among his five rushing touchdowns that year were scoring scampers of 65, 52 and 55 yards, and his three rushing touchdowns of 50 yards or more are already tied for fourth-most by a Clemson player since 1950, trailing only Travis Etienne (10), C.J. Spiller (six) and Andre Ellington (six).
His 8.82-yard average in 2018 remains the Clemson single-season record.
Dixon’s yards-per-carry average is the eighth-best of any FBS player with at least 200 carries since 2018.
As Clemson climbed into the elite echelon of college football programs during the last decade, observers posited that Clemson’s rise coincided with the rapid ascent of its offensive line play.
From 2015-20, the Tigers produced a total of 24 All-ACC selections along the offensive line, including 10 first-team honors. Clemson’s 24 all-conference selections by offensive linemen are the most of any Power Five program, and its 10 first-team selections are tied with Alabama for the third-most in that span.
Clemson’s success in its 39-3 run since 2018 has been powered in part at the line of scrimmage, where Clemson holds a 147-55 edge over opponents in sacks in that time frame, including a 46-20 edge in 2020. Clemson’s +92 margin in sacks since 2018 is by far the top differential in the country, as no other program can boast a sack differential greater than +74 since 2018.
Clemson entered 2020 missing two presumptive preseason starters at defensive end in Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas, perhaps leaving the uninitiated to wonder from where Clemson’s pass rush might come.
America then met 2020 true freshmen Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and Trenton Simpson.
Bresee joined Clemson as the consensus No. 1 player in America for the class of 2020. Murphy joined the Tigers as ESPN.com’s third-ranked player in the class, while Simpson was 247Sports’ No. 13-ranked player in the group.
It had been five years since a Clemson true freshman had recorded a sack in a season opener, when Dexter Lawrence and Tre Lamar each did so in the 2016 season opener at Auburn. Both Murphy and Bresee got on the stat sheet in the opener against Wake, with Murphy compiling two sacks among a team-high seven tackles and Bresee adding half a sack and the Tigers’ first blocked field goal since Week 2 of 2018. Murphy has accounted for three forced fumbles this year, the most by a freshman (true or redshirt) under Dabo Swinney.
Bresee earned Freshman All-American in 2020, joining Lawrence as the second ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in Clemson history. Murphy collected de-facto consensus Freshman All-America status from The Athletic, ESPN, Rivals and the Football Writers Association of America and was named ACC Co-Newcomer of the Year by the Associated Press. The duo was joined by a midseason surge by Simpson, the former high school running back whose presence as an edge rusher and growth at Clemson’s nickel/sam linebacker position was part of former starter Mike Jones Jr.’s decision to transfer to LSU.
All three members of the trio recorded 4.0 sacks in 2020, tying William “Refrigerator” Perry and others for third in Clemson history in sacks by a true freshman.
Among Murphy’s impact plays in 2020 were three forced fumbles. Murphy became the first Clemson true freshman in the Dabo Swinney era to record three forced fumbles in a season as well as the first Clemson freshman (true or redshirt) with three forced fumbles in a season since redshirt freshman Ed McDaniel in 1988. He tied for the national lead in forced fumbles by a freshman, and his three were the most by a freshman defensive lineman.
Meanwhile, Bresee led all FBS true freshman interior linemen in sacks, Clemson’s second straight season producing the the leader in that category (Tyler Davis in 2019).
Behind Clemson’s precocious defensive line is a pair of hard-hitting veteran linebackers that led Head Coach Dabo Swinney to coin the duo as “The Bruise Brothers.”
Middle linebacker James Skalski, the only player ever to play in (and win) five ACC Championship Games, returned for his sixth season at Clemson in 2021 following an all-conference seasons a year ago. He took a mid-career redshirt in 2018, playing four games including the ACC Championship Game, Cotton Bowl and National Championship Game in what he and others have called “the sweetest gig on the team” that year before becoming a full-time starter in 2019. The physical presence of No. 47 has led Swinney referring to him as “a war daddy” and calling his participation in practices and scrimmages “just unfair.”
Skalski’s running mate at the second level of the defense continues to be fifth-year linebacker Baylon Spector, whose strong performances in 2020 included an ACC Linebacker of the Week selection for his play against Virginia.
“[Spector] and Skalski, it’s a reflection of how they practice. I’m telling you, every single rep at practice is a game rep to those two guys. They put a ton of work in every week to get themselves ready to play,” Swinney said. “I know how hard they’ve worked. It’s the unseen grind. That’s a ton of work that they’ve put in.
“I call them The Bruise Brothers. Those two right there, it’s something to watch and it’s fun to see.”
The duo’s success is not merely a function of their physicality and hard work. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables praised the cerebral nature of their play as well.
“They’ve developed some really good chemistry together. They’re always having side chat conversations when I’m trying to talk with the whole defense and I’m having to correct at practice, and I look over and they’re coaching each other. Sometimes that bothers me, I’ll be honest, [smiling] but I absolutely love it because it’s always about the details of what we’re talking about,” Venables said. “They’re like two coaches, really, out on the field.”
Since the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014, Clemson has routinely produced one of the nation’s elite defenses.
Clemson has ranked in the Top 15 in the country in total defense in each of the last seven seasons and has ranked among the Top 25 in scoring defense in all of those campaigns (including four Top 5 finishes in the category).
Clemson entered 2021 as the only program in the country to produce a Top 15 defense in each of the seven previous years.
Clemson’s six Top 10 finishes in total defense in that span are tied for the most in the country.
Clemson has held opponents under 300 yards of offense 28 times since the start of the 2018 season, the most in the country.
Clemson has won 89 consecutive games when holding opponents under 23 points, a streak that dates to the 2010 season. Since 2014, Clemson has held opponents to 22 or fewer points in 71 games, the most in the nation. Clemson is 71-0 in those contests.
Clemson has held opponents to 2.0 or fewer yards per carry in 25 games in the College Football Playoff era (since 2014), the second-most in the country. Clemson is 24-1 in those contests.
Clemson opened 2020 with two such performances. Clemson allowed only 1.1 yards per carry in its season opener against Wake Forest and then held The Citadel to 1.8 yards per carry.
Since Brent Venables joined Clemson as defensive coordinator prior to the 2012 season, Clemson has allowed only 1.15 points per possession against FBS opponents, the second-fewest in the country in that span. No program has given up fewer points per possession against FBS opponents since 2018, as Clemson’s 0.96 points allowed per possession since the start of the 2018 season makes Clemson the only program in the country to allow fewer than a full point per drive to opponents.
Clemson’s defense calls Death Valley home but might as well file for dual residency in opponents’ backfields. Since Brent Venables took over as Clemson’s defensive coordinator in 2012, Clemson leads the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss, and has led the country in tackles for loss in more than half of Venables’ nine seasons at Clemson.
Clemson’s 46 sacks tied for the national lead in 2020. In doing so, Clemson past the 40-sack mark for a seventh straight season — every year of the CFP era. Clemson’s seven 40-sack seasons in that time are the most in the country.
Clemson’s success sacking quarterbacks has not been limited to a handful of high-production players but is instead indicative of team-wide success. In the College Football Playoff era (since 2014), 75 different Clemson players have recorded at least half a sack, including a nation-high 21 different players in 2020.
Thanks to that breadth of contributions, Clemson was still able to tie for the national lead in sacks in 2020 despite no single player exceeding 4.5 sacks. The team with which Clemson tied (Pitt) was out-sacked by Clemson by a 6-3 mark head-to-head in 2020.
Clemson has posted 39 multiple-sack games since 2018, the most in the FBS. Clemson has recorded at least two sacks in 34 of its last 35 games, including each of its last 18.
Clemson’s active 18-game streak with multiple sacks enters 2021 tied for Clemson’s longest such streak of the last 40 years.
Clemson emphasizes the importance of turnover margin every week on what it dubs “TANOGA Tuesday,” standing for “TakeAways, NO GiveAways.”
Clemson had 15 giveaways in 12 games in 2020, a 1.25 turnovers-per-game mark that ranked 10th in school history. Four of Clemson’s 10-best seasons in turnovers per game have come in the last four seasons.
One year after the 2019 Tigers won the turnover margin 11 times, Clemson’s most in a season under Dabo Swinney, Clemson won the turnover margin six times in 2020.
Clemson recorded 23 takeaways in 2020, tied for fourth-most in the country. It marked Clemson’s second straight season finishing in the Top 10 in the nation in takeaways. The Tigers finished tied for 12th in the nation in turnover margin at +8 on the year.
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For each of the last four seasons, Clemson has led all Power Five conference teams in average players per game. The last time Clemson did not lead Power Five teams in that category was in 2016, when Clemson finished second in that category.
Clemson continues to not only lead the nation in that category, but continues to lap the field. In 2019, Clemson played an average of 76.0 players per game, an average that far exceeded all Power Five programs by more than 11 players — a full unit — per game. Clemson’s lead in that category in 2020 was more than seven players per game.
The approach to creating functional depth and rewarding players ready to play has been a key philosophy for Head Coach Dabo Swinney, whose own collegiate playing career was hatched as a walk-on fighting for playing time in Alabama’s receiving corps.
“We’re fully committed to playing guys who deserve to play,” Swinney said. “You commit to a guy early in the season, and even if a guy has only played 10 percent of the snaps, when you get to game eight or nine, they’ve got some good experience.”
Clemson’s high-water mark for player participation in 2020 was 96 against The Citadel in the team’s home opener. Clemson approached that mark with 94 against Pitt in a Senior Day rout.
Even prior to the adoption of new redshirt rules, Clemson routinely played close to 60 players or more per game under Swinney.
In the first year of new redshirt regulations in 2018, Clemson played a then-school-record 20 true freshmen. Clemson immediately shattered that record in its 2019 season opener, with 27 true freshmen making their collegiate debuts in that contest. An additional eight true freshmen made their debuts to push that total to a school-record 36. The only true freshmen not to see game action for Clemson that year were injured linebackers Bryton Constantin and Matthew Maloney.
In 2020, Clemson played 27 true freshmen, 22 of whom made their debuts in Clemson’s season opener at Wake Forest. Clemson’s 27 true freshman to see game action were the tied for the most in the country as of the end of Clemson’s regular season. Coinciding with recent redshirt regulations, Clemson’s last three seasons have resulted in the most game action for first-year freshmen since 1982.
Clemson’s youth was evident in its 2020 starting lineup as well. While the focus on Clemson’s experienced offensive backfield created an impression of an overtly veteran roster, Clemson actually had 26 different players who earned their first career starts at some point in 2020: CB Andrew Booth Jr., DL Bryan Bresee, S Joseph Charleston, TE Braden Galloway, CB Mario Goodrich, CB Malcolm Greene, DE K.J. Henry, LB Mike Jones Jr., CB Sheridan Jones, WR Frank Ladson Jr., DE Justin Mascoll, OT Jordan McFadden, DE Myles Murphy, WR Joseph Ngata, S Jalyn Phillips, WR Cornell Powell, OL Will Putnam, LB Trenton Simpson, LB Baylon Spector, WR Brannon Spector, S Ray Thornton III, QB D.J. Uiagalelei, LB Jake Venables, WR E.J. Williams, DT Jordan Williams and S Lannden Zanders.
Clemson’s 26 first-time offensive and defensive starters tied for the most in the country in 2020.
Clemson started 40 different players in 2020 (38 excluding kicker B.T. Potter and punter Will Spiers)., including 23 different starters on defense, the Clemson defense’s most in a year since Brent Venables’ arrival as defensive coordinator in 2012. Clemson’s previous average under Venables had been 16.5, and Clemson’s two national title teams of that era in 2016 and 2018 started 16 and 15 different players, respectively.
Clemson has reached the 400-yard mark in all 12 games in 2020, the second-longest streak to open a season in school history, behind only the 2018 Tigers, which reached the 400-yard mark in all 15 games of their 15-0 national championship season.
Clemson’s 12 400-yard games in 2020 were second-most in the country and its 74 400-yard games since 2015 lead the nation.
Clemson’s distribution of talent throughout its offense and its willingness to adapt to how defenses are game planning has resulted in the Tigers fielding one of the nation’s more balanced offenses in recent years. In 2018, Clemson set a school record with 3,723 rushing yards. In 2020, Clemson set a school record with 348.5 passing yards per game.
Clemson has exceeded both 200 passing yards and 200 rushing yards in 53 games under Dabo Swinney, posting a perfect record in those contests. Clemson’s 19 such games since the start of the 2018 season are tied for the second-most in the country.
From 2018-20, Clemson was the only program in the country to both throw and rush for 9,000 yards in each category. Lowering the bar, Clemson was one of only six teams to reach 8,000 yards in both categories.
Clemson has averaged at least 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game four times in school history, with two of those seasons occurring in the 2018 and 2019 campaigns. Clemson broke the 3,000-yard mark both rushing and passing in both 2018 and 2019, two of three 3,000/3,000 seasons in school history (2015).
Dabo Swinney has often mentioned tight ends as being a foundational piece of Clemson’s offensive identity for the balance they provide in both the running and passing game in Clemson’s base 11 personnel.
So when Clemson tight ends combined for 43 catches for 400 yards and two scores across both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the familiar refrain outside the program became, “Where are Clemson’s tight ends?”
The tight ends returned to public consciousness in a big way in 2020, as the group combined for 50 receptions for 664 yards and seven touchdowns, the position group’s most in a season in all categories since 2016.
The group now falls under the direct purview of playcaller Tony Elliott, the Offensive Coordinator who assumed control of Clemson’s tight ends after sliding over from the running backs group upon the hire of C.J. Spiller this offseason. Elliott returns a strong group for 2021, as Braden Galloway and Davis Allen were primary contributors for two of the tight end group’s best games in the Dabo Swinney era in 2020 against Wake Forest and Miami (Fla.) That Miami game represented the first time that Clemson tight ends combined for three scores in a game.
Clemson’s most productive tight end output by yardage came from its 2016 National Championship team that featured the play of All-American Jordan Leggett. Clemson tight ends had 797 receiving yards that year, most in the Swinney era, on 52 catches. The record for receptions for the tight end position under Swinney is 65, in 2011 when the Tigers featured John Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen.
Clemson shattered its school record for yards per play in 2018 at 7.35, the program’s first time exceeding seven yards per play in a season. That record stood for barely 12 months until Clemson broke it again in 2019 by averaging 7.38 yards per play. Clemson then averaged 6.69 yards per play in 2020, giving Clemson its top three yards-per-play averages in school history in the last three years.
In 2018-19, Clemson became only the third school since 2000 to average 7.35 or better yards per play in back-to-back seasons, joining Alabama, which did it across 2018-19, and Oklahoma, which was in the midst of a four-year streak across the 2016-19 seasons.
Collectively, Clemson averaged 7.2 yards per play across the 2018-20 seasons, joining Oklahoma (7.9) and Alabama (7.8) as the only programs to average at least seven yards per play across those three seasons.
Clemson has not played a large number of one-possession games in recent years, the Tigers have proven very adept at winning such contests since 2011. In that span, the Tigers have played 32 games with a final margin of eight points or less, and Clemson’s .844 winning percentage in those one-possession contests is the best in the country in that time frame.
Clemson was 1-1 in one-score games in 2020, including a win vs. Boston College and a double-overtime loss at Notre Dame.
Clemson’s success in tight games comes despite no team in the country winning games by a larger average victory margin or winning more games by 21+ points since 2018.