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Dabo Swinney, revolutionary hero

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Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers have built a Big 12-style program that has toppled Alabama and changed the game for top programs that want to win a championship.

While the record is 2-2 in playoff showdowns with the Tigers and Tide each boasting a blowout win in the last two years and a national championship, with their recent win Clemson has surpassed Alabama as the preeminent program in college football. They were playing a different game than Saban’s Alabama in their 44-16 victory and had the Tide flustered and giving up by the end of the game.

It’s actually a game that’s given Saban’s Alabama trouble throughout their run. The Tigers ran a HUNH spread offense and a defense fostered to survive in the HUNH spread era whereas the Tide were playing Saban’s preferred style that’s been tweaked to handle the new era but isn’t born of it. This same style gave Alabama trouble against Texas in the 2009 Championship game that started the Tide roll, against the better Gus Malzahn teams at Auburn, against the Utah Utes in 2012, Johnny Manziel in 2011 and 2012, and the Hugh Freeze Ole Miss Rebels before they collapsed.

It also gave them trouble against Clemson, who paired it with an elite defense and gave them a couple of close games in 2015 and 2016 before finally blowing the Tide away in 2018. Now Clemson is established with a pipeline of elite recruits rolling through an under-regarded S&C program and a freshman phenom at QB in Trevor Lawrence who has at least two more years to lead the Tigers.

The way this all came together has been pretty fascinating.

The construction of Dabo’s program

Dabo’s first big hire was Tulsa OC and former Texas HS coach Chad Morris in 2011. While still at the HS level, Morris had learned some of Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up system and then molded his own system, which he translated into big time success at Lake Travis HS and then headed off to the college ranks.

That went swimmingly and immediately produced a 10-win season, a standard that Clemson has not fallen below since the hire for the duration of the decade. Morris left just before the 2015 season to take the HC job at SMU but Clemson has maintained his system without missing a beat since.

The year after hiring Morris, Swinney hit the jackpot when Oklahoma tried to shunt Brent Venables sideways in order to make room for Bob Stoops’ fired brother Mike Stoops at DC. The 2011 Oklahoma defense ranked 7th nationally in S&P+ but took three losses in shootouts to Texas Tech (in Norman), at Baylor (RG3), and then at Stillwater against Brandon Weeden and Oklahoma State. It was unfathomable at that time that a defense like Oklahoma’s could give up 38 points (or 44 against OSU) in a game and largely assumed that the Sooners were about to fix some deep problems by bringing back Mike.

Instead of accepting a demotion to co-coordinator with Mike Stoops, Brent Venables accepted the sole DC job at Clemson. His 2012 unit ranked 34th, then 12th in 2013, and in the top 10 every year since with a first place finish in 2018. Venables wasn’t the problem, merely one of the early casualties of evolving standards for good defense.

From the beginning of Dabo’s tenure, another crucial piece was in place in S&C coach Joey Batson. You can tell the programs which have high level S&C by how they use redshirts. Many teams that recruit at a high level don’t like to redshirt players because it becomes a lost year when a RS sophomore goes pro after using only two of his three required years on the field. Clemson often likes to redshirt anyways, particularly across the lines, because their players clearly get a lot from a season in which they can work harder with Joey Batson during the season without concern about saving energy for the practice field or Saturdays.

They still send a lot of players out as freshman without the redshirt but key cogs to the 2018 title such as Clelin Ferell, Kendall Joseph, and Isaiah Simmons were redshirted as freshman before emerging as some of the most freakish components to their defense.

The upshot of all of this was that Dabo essentially assembled a Big 12-style program with coordinators from the Big 12 that had experience either executing that style (Morris) or defending it (Venables) and then combined those strategies with the resources of an SEC program, all within the comfortable confines of the ACC.

Pushing football forward

There was only so much influence the Big 12 could have on college football without producing a national champion. Eventually Lincoln Riley turbocharged Oklahoma’s offense to the extent that they were making the playoffs almost annually, but always just to lose due to bad defense. What’s more, by that time Clemson had broken through for their first championship.

The game that Clemson is embracing is much simpler than the game of football that Nick Saban’s Alabama has been dominating this decade. It’s built in part around Dabo’s own area of particular expertise, the wide receiver position. Since Dabo’s recruiting and WR development was joint to Chad Morris’ HUNH spread, the results for Clemson’s WR position have been pretty stunning:

Dabo’s decade of wideouts

Year WR1 WR2 TE1
Year WR1 WR2 TE1
2011 Sammy Watkins: 82-1219 yards, 12 TDs DeAndre Hopkins: 72-978 yards, 5 TDs Dwayne Allen: 60-598 yards, 8 TDs
2012 DeAndre Hopkins: 82-1405 yards, 18 TDs Sammy Watkins: 57-708 yards, 3 TDs Brandon Ford: 40-480 yards, 8 TDs
2013 Sammy Watkins: 101-1464 yards, 12 TDs Martavis Bryant: 42-828 yards, 7 TDs Stanton Steckinger: 21-244 yards, 4 TDs
2014 Mike Williams: 57-1030 yards, 6 TDs Artavis Scott: 76-965 yards, 8 TDs Germone Hopper: 27-331 yards, 3 TDs
2015 Artavis Scott: 93-901 yards, 7 TDs Charone Peak: 50-716 yards, 5 TDs Jordan Leggett: 40-525 yards, 8 TDs
2016 Mike Williams: 98-1361 yards, 11 TDs Deon Cain: 38-724 yards, 9 TDs Jordan Leggett: 46-736 yards, 7 TDs
2017 Deon Cain: 58-734 yards, 6 TDs Ray-ray McCloud: 49-503 yards, 1 TD Hunter Renfrow: 60-602 yards, 3 TDs
2018 Justyn Ross: 46-1000 yards, 9 TDs Tee Higgins: 59-936 yards, 12 TDs Hunter Renfrow: 49-544 yards, 1 TD

There were some years where the Tigers had really good receiving TEs like Jordan Leggett and others where they tended to just play more four WR sets and use a dynamo route runner like Hunter Renfrow instead. The deadly 2016 offense had both Leggett and Renfrow in the middle of the field (as well as another dangerous slot or two) and then Mike Williams and Deon Cain outside.

With all of these dominant skill athletes on the perimeter, the Clemson offense can always fall back on simple spread tactics against top defenses. Their run game is always potent and has produced many a top rusher but every elite team faces a real dilemma when they face the other blue bloods of college football. Come playoff time when you play a team like Notre Dame, or whichever non-Bama SEC power is emergent in a given year, you’re facing NFL DL and LBs and a team that got to that level because they can stop the run.

In the college game, the elites separate themselves from everyone else with their ability to win in the trenches, running the ball on their opponents and stopping the run. The elite teams are uniquely able to do this because they can recruit more of the freak 230-250 pound LBs that can run a 4.6, the 6-5/300 pound DTs that can’t be blocked without a double team, and build a phalanx of 6-5/300 pound OL that combine superior strength with unreal athleticism. Beyond Alabama, there’s always a handful of blue blood teams around the country that have a potent combo of such trench warriors that allow them to overwhelm their region that season.

For much of this decade the blue blood programs have been embracing spread tactics only as a means to allow them to keep the focal point of contests in the trenches where they have an advantage. 2018 Alabama vacillated between 11 personnel spread sets with Tua Tagovailoa throwing RPOs off their run game to 12 personnel sets that would minimize the RPOs and just try to block up an opposing front. They still wanted to run the ball, they were just willing to flick the ball down the field to open burners if you wanted to choose that death.

Gus Malzahn and Urban Meyer utilized spread systems that often just served to create bigger alleys for the ballcarriers to run through and more options for building around the running skills of dual-threat QBs.

Facing their normal ACC foes, Clemson will lean on their ability to spread an opponent out and have a star like Travis Etienne run wild. They’ve also made great use of some NFL-laden defensive fronts that can squash most opponents. But they differentiate themselves against other top teams by moving the game out to the perimeter. Out wide they tend to have the best collection of freakishly large and skilled wideouts and their QBs are better trained on how to use them to attack defenses.

For years now teams have faced off against Alabama and tried to find ways run the ball against them with VERY few successes. Clemson has shown little interest in trying to out muscle the Tide but instead are getting better and better at thwarting Saban’s area of expertise, the secondary.

When an offense has four receivers spread out wide, the defense only has so many ways to match up. Nick Saban has an unbelievably extensive collection of pattern-matching coverages that offer different leverage points and rules for trying to handle different route combinations but it all breaks down when the offense is putting multiple athletes on the field that can’t be covered 1-on-1. With spread sets and motioning Hunter Renfrow around, Trevor Lawrence could get a good look at how Alabama was playing the matchups from snap to snap and then after the snap simply focus on delivering the best possible ball to whichever of his targets had a 1-on-1. With the level of skill that Lawrence and receivers like Justyn Ross possess, there’s not really any answer in the playbook save for the double team and trying to play the Tigers outside-in.

Where Dabo’s Tigers have been cashing in their blue blood privilege is actually less in having a talented QB like Trevor Lawrence (even as good as he is) and more in being able to recruit and field multiple 6-2+ skill athletes that make for impossible covers. Stopping Clemson these days is about flooding the field with hybrid defenders that can run and cover and doing whatever it takes to stop the pass before worrying about Etienne and the run game.

Brent Venables and the Tigers have shown an inclination towards that very style with their own defense. The Clemson D make stemming and shifts an integral part to their defense, hoping to prevent the QB from getting a good picture of what the coverage is or where the good matchups will be unless he can dissect it live after the snap. What’s more, they were ultimately okay with Alabama running the ball down the field on drive so long as the Tide didn’t hit explosive plays.

There’s little point these days in over-stressing run defense if your own offense is built around finding matchups to throw the ball down the field. You’re going to end up scoring lots of points and then it’s on the other team’s offense to match. That’s going to be hard to do if their strategy for scoring points is to drive the length of the field with steady gains and conversions and then punching it in from the red zone where your own defense has less and less space to worry about while applying pressure and numbers to stop the run.

That was the name of the game in the title game. Alabama was balancing on a knife’s edge on both sides of the ball, hoping that one of Clemson’s star DL wasn’t going to kill a drive with a TFL and that one of Clemson’s star WRs wasn’t going to make a drive with a big catch. If Alabama won a 1-on-1 matchup in this game they were going to pick up 10 yards with a run or break up a pass and force Clemson to try again, but if Clemson won a 1-on-1 matchup it could mean a seven point swing. That’s why Alabama’s yardage advantages meant nothing to the numerous third downs and big situations that went decisively to Clemson. The Tigers were playing a different game and Alabama’s style couldn’t hold up to the same risk/benefit analysis.

George Washington Swinney

Alabama’s hegemony in college football is indeed in a dire position right now. Many pundits will point to their still stunning recruiting classes pouring in, their 14-1 season, and the fact that Tua Tagovailoa and much of their secondary is coming back next season. But the blueprint is out there now, it’s clear that you beat Alabama by simplifying the game with the spread passing attack and moving the focal point out to the perimeter. Alabama’s big edge over the rest of college football has been Nick Saban marshaling the resources of that program and region to field the biggest, strongest, and most disciplined fronts in all of college football. So long as the game was going to be defined by head to head formational battles, Alabama wasn’t going to be topped.

Clemson’s Tigers ultimately played it like George Washington against the British empire. They avoided decisive contests “in the trenches” against the redcoat regulars lined up in formation but took their shots when they could inflict decisive damage while otherwise avoiding direct confrontations when possible. The result was a revolution that has put Clemson on top of the college football world and put out a blueprint for hapless SEC squads and other major powers to follow in trying to combat the Tide.

Don’t assume that Nick Saban will be able to overhaul his “process” and adapt either, even the resourceful British empire needed a nearly identical disaster in the first Anglo-Boer war 100 years later before they finally adjusted their strategy for fighting colonial settlers on the road. In the coming arms race to play high level spread passing attacks with star skill athletes, the Tide’s normal advantages, playing style, and accumulated recruiting talent doesn’t necessarily put them at advantage. They’re going to have to change the way they play and their big picture strategies to avoid Clemson putting them in the same dilemmas with an even better and more experienced unit (Lawrence and Ross are freshmen!!!).

The game is changed now and Alabama is just one of many teams that will be aiming to try and recreate what Dabo has done.