Dabo Swinney has earned his place among college football’s best coaches

GLENDALE, Ariz. — With seconds left on the clock in the Fiesta Bowl, with confetti set to fall, and as Clemson fans chanted “A-C-C, A-C-C,” Tigers’ players grabbed a stray bucket of Gatorade, and proceeded to dump its contents on the back of Dabo Swinney’s head.

The moment was a symbolic ending to the Tigers’ 31-0 destruction of Ohio State in the national semifinal Saturday, a perfect cap to their most complete game of the season, and the single worst loss of Urban Meyer’s career.

The moment was symbolic for another reason. In a sport where virtually any conversation about the “best coach” starts and ends with names like “Nick Saban,” “Urban Meyer” and “Jim Harbaugh,” with other names such as Chris Petersen and Bobby Petrino sprinkled in, it’s impossible to overlook Swinney anymore.

He is one of the best coaches in college football. It’s something that those who’ve known him best have believed for a while now.

“He’s the best coach in the country,” said DeAndre McDaniel, a former safety who played for Swinney and now serves as a graduate assistant coaching defensive backs. “As a former player, as a coach under him [I’ve seen both sides]. He’s the best coach in the country.”

Granted, it sounds preposterous to mention Swinney in such company.

However, if you look at his resume — outside that elusive national championship — he has accomplished just about everything a coach can.

Swinney is 87-28 overall, a figure that is solid, but better when you consider that more than half of those losses (15) came in his first three years at the school. Since 2010 however, he has gone 68-13, and is a staggering 27-2 in the last two seasons. Overall, Swinney has won 10 or more games six years in a row. His records during that stretch read: 10-4, 11-2, 11-2, 10-3, 14-1 and 13-1 this year.

What might be more incredible isn’t the totality of the wins, but who they have come against. In the last five postseasons, Swinney is 5-1, with his only loss coming to Alabama in last year’s national championship game. Other than that, he has two wins over Meyer, two wins over Bob Stoops and one win over Les Miles. This year alone Swinney beat both Petrino and Jimbo Fisher head-to-head, and led his team to victories in two of college football’s toughest venues, Doak Campbell Stadium and Jordan-Hare.

In addition, he’s also won three ACC titles, with five division titles overall. Add in the fact that Clemson started the season with 45 players on NFL rosters, and short of a national championship, there is quite literally nothing a college football coach can accomplish that Swinney hasn’t.

Swinney admitted after the game that his team seems to always be overshadowed.

“Well, I think we’ve been ranked up there in the Top 5 for a long time, so I definitely think the narrative has changed with our program,” Swinney said. “But it still seems like we’re the underdog whenever we get in these big-type games for whatever reason.”

There may have been no better example than the Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers entered as around a three-point underdog, yet left little doubt – almost immediately – who was better. Understand that the 31-0 score was window-dressing.  If anything, it didn’t fully represent how much better Clemson was than Ohio State. The Tigers were immaculately prepared. Outside of punting, there wasn’t a single place on the field where Ohio State was better than Clemson.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers were able to attack the Ohio State defense in ways few teams have. The Buckeyes allowed 281 yards per game on the season; the Tigers nearly topped that by halftime with 275, on their way to 470. That was the most the Buckeyes allowed all season. Clemson ran for 205 yards on a defense that allowed 117 on average this year. Then there was Deshaun Watson, who threw for 265 yards and tallied three touchdowns overall.

Even better was the defense, where Clemson dominated. The Tigers’ defensive line lived in the Ohio State backfield, abusing the Buckeyes’ overmatched offensive line. Clemson’s stats read like something out of a September game against an FCS opponent, not a national semifinal. The Tigers finished with 11 tackles for loss and three sacks overall, with little known defensive end Clelin Ferrell emerging as a star with three TFLs and a sack.

So with the dominant win behind them, it’s time to ask one simple question: Why isn’t Dabo considered amongst the game’s best?

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The most important piece is of course that national championship, which Swinney admits is the missing element to his Tigers program.

“We’ve done about everything that you can do multiple times,” Swinney said. “But we have not been able to win it all. But you gotta get yourself in position to do that. And so now we’re starting to hopefully we can be a little more consistent with these opportunities and find a way to get it done.”

Only time will tell whether Swinney gets that national championship in two weeks, or whether it will elude him for another year.

But regardless of whether the Tigers’ win it all in two weeks, one thing has been established beyond a reasonable doubt: Swinney is one of college football’s best coaches.