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Evolution of a Champion: Clemson’s climb to an elite level

By Josh Roller | @Roller_01

Sports Capital Journalism Program

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Clemson Tigers have been a part of the College Football Playoff for the past four straight seasons and have compiled a 55-4 record in that span. When coach Dabo Swinney took over the program midway through the 2008 season, it had been 18 years since the Tigers had 10 or more victories and they had not won the Atlantic Coast Conference since 1991.

Swinney has built a program that just finished its 10th full season with him at the helm. Including his interim season in 2008, Swinney has led the Tigers to a bowl game each year. The team won its first conference title under Swinney in 2011 and has won the last four ACC titles. Alabama, the only team to reach each of the five national semifinal games, is the only school with more appearances.

The morning after Clemson’s surprisingly convincing 44-16 victory over Alabama, the second championship game victory for the Tigers over the Crimson Tide in the last four seasons, Swinney shared the evolution he has supervised since becoming the Clemson coach.

“Over the last decade, everything we’ve done once, we’ve done multiple times, and it’s kind of been a progression,” said Swinney. “We won our first division in ’09, well, we’ve won seven now. At that point, we had not won a division, and then we come back in ’11 and we won the league. We hadn’t won the league since like 1991. Now we’ve won it five times.”

When you look at the Clemson roster and who have been major contributors to the team, there are few seniors. A remarkable collection of freshmen and sophomores that could help Clemson dominate the college football landscape for the next few years. If they are able to attract and recruit players as they have in previous years, that reign could be longer.

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is one of those players who will be instrumental in the future success for Clemson. A true freshman, he became the first true freshman starter to lead a team to a national championship since Jamelle Holieway of Oklahoma in 1985. Lawrence was chosen over Kelly Bryant to start at Syracuse in week five of the season.

“Well, I mean, he was the best player, and that’s not a knock to dis Kelly Bryant,” Swinney shared after the game. He stated that it was his job as coach to make decisions that put the team in the best position to win. Swinney said after four games, Lawrence was that player to fill that role.

Coming into the national championship game, Lawrence completed 239 of  365 passes for 2,933 yards. He averaged 12.3 yards per completion, threw 27 touchdown passes, and only had four interceptions in 14 games. Lawrence also had an average efficiency rating of 155.20 for the season.

On Monday night against the Crimson Tide, Lawrence completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards, an average of 17.4 yards per play. He had a rating of 184.5, which was higher than any single-game rating since he became the starter in the fifth week of the season

Freshman Justyn Ross had perhaps his best game of the season when he caught six passes for a total of 153 yards. His 153 yards were a season high and the six receptions equaled the most for Ross this season. In the second half he completed three masterful catches, including a 74-yard touchdown reception.

“The catches that you saw him make tonight, those are routine for him,” Swinney said in the postgame press conference early Tuesday morning. He shared that from the moment he recruited Ross, he knew he would be a tough matchup for any opponent. “He was unbelievable in camp and the early part of the season, and then [I] thought he hit a little bit of a wall,” Swinney continued. “…Then he just kind of got his second wind, and these last five games probably, he has been unbelievable.”

Another important factor in Clemson’s success was the play of sophomore running back Travis Etienne, who had rushing touchdowns of 17 yards and one yard. Etienne finished the season with 1,628 rushing yards, a Clemson single-season record.

“We’ll have four seniors in that offensive line,” Swinney said Tuesday morning, looking to next season. “…We’re going to be experienced at running back, experienced at quarterback with Trevor and Chase [Brice], [and] experienced at receiver.”

Defensively, Clemson will need to find replacements for seniors such as Austin Bryant, Albert Huggins, Kendall Joseph and Christian Wilkins, all starters in the National Championship game. Look for Clelin Ferrell, Trayvon Mullen, Nyles Pinckney and Nolan Turner to become defensive leaders in 2019.

“Every year is a new challenge,” Swinney said Tuesday morning, “and you don’t carry anything over.”

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