November 29, 2008
Clemson came into the 2008 season with high expectations. After two decades of being stuck in the throws of mediocrity, the Tigers came into the season ranked ninth. A season opening win vs #24 Alabama in the inaugural Chic Fil A Kickoff Classic would put the Clemson program on the path back to national relevance. That win never came though.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide gave Clemson a thorough 34-10 beating that night in Atlanta, and the game wasn’t even that close. They’d rebound with wins over Citadel, NCST, and SC State, but then the bottom fell out. A home loss to Maryland, followed by an embarrassing 12-7 Thursday night loss to Wake Forest in Winston Salem had the Tigers sitting at just 3-3. Enter Dabo Swinney.
Tommy Bowden was fired following the nationally televised loss to Wake Forest and Swinney was tapped as the guy to step in and make the best of a bad situation. Being a young wide receivers coach who’d never even been a coordinator, Swinney was basically only expected to take over, steady the ship, and get through the rest of the season, while the higher ups conducted a national search for Bowden’s permanent replacement.
One of Swinney’s first moves after taking over was to replace offensive coordinator Rob Spence with Billy Napier. He wanted to ensure the best players were being utilized, and being put in the situations to have success. When you have the likes of James Davis and CJ Spiller in your backfield, those are the guys that need to be the focal point of your offense, and with Spence that wasn’t always the case.
The Tigers would drop their first game with Dabo at the helm, losing 21-17 at home to Georgia Tech. Despite the loss, it was easy to see the renewed energy. The young, very enthusiastic Swinney was already having a noticeable impact. That impact was not only being felt by the players, but also the fan base. It was readily apparent that these players were buying in, and that they wanted to play for their new head coach.
Clemson went out and won three of their next four, with wins over BC, Duke, and UVA. The only loss came to #24 FSU, on the road in Tallahassee. The Tigers were 6-5, and needed a win over in state rival South Carolina to become bowl eligible. They also needed a win if they wanted their new head coach to have any shot at being retained full time. With candidates like Gary Patterson, Lane Kiffin, Bud Foster, and Brent Venables, Swinney needed all the help he could get.
The Gamecocks were 6-5 themselves and led by head coach Steve Spurrier. This wasn’t a really good South Carolina team, but it wasn’t one of those bad teams they’d been known to have over the years either. They had a solid squad, with a decent defense. They also had one of the best offensive minds in the game as a head coach, squaring off against a rookie, interim head coach trying to prove himself and show he wasn’t in over his head.
Behind a strong rushing attack, the Tigers not only beat the rival Gamecocks, they beat them handily 31-14. Playing his final game in The Valley, James Davis carried the ball 24 times for 91 yards, and scored 3 TDs, doing his part in showing the decision makers that they already had the right man for the job in place. CJ Spiller did his part as well, with 16 carries for 88 yards, adding 3 catches for another 35 yards.
The Tigers ran for 199 yards on the day, keeping the offense in front of the sticks, making the going much easier for QB Cullen Harper. The senior QB had a solid day, going 12-17 for 199 yards and 1 TD in his final home game. That one TD throw was a big one, as he connected with Jacoby Ford for a 50 yard score. It was Fords lone catch on the day, and a ball Harper basically threw from his knees as he was being pressured.
The biggest thing however, just might have been the defensive performance. The Tiger D came to play that day. Gamecock QB Chris Smelley was under pressure much of the day, and ended up tossing 4 interceptions. The defense was relentless and physical, and turned in one big hit after another. The Tigers even blocked a punt on special teams.
When it was over, so was the search for a permanent head coach. Turns out, the right guy was in place all along. The rest as they say, is history. Who knows what happens had Clemson not won this game. However, we do know what wouldn’t have happened had they lost.