Searching for the next Clemson
One could easily make the case that, as with the UEFA Champions League in soccer, the creation of the College Football Playoff took a sport already defined by its haves-versus-have-nots divisions and increased them.
Of 28 CFP bids handed out in seven years, 20 have gone to four schools: Alabama (six), Clemson (six), Oklahoma (four) and Ohio State (four). They’ve won 22 conference titles between them in that span, leaving even other well-run programs — the Georgias and Notre Dames and, briefly, LSUs of the world — to forage for scraps.
The top four in 2021’s SP+ projections? Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State. They could be the top four in the preseason AP poll as well. If they aren’t, it’s because Georgia butted ahead of one of them, but that wouldn’t be much of a sign of parity. After all, the Dawgs reached a CFP final (in the 2017 season), have established maybe the highest level of recruiting outside of Tuscaloosa and have finished in the AP top 10 for four straight years. A have-not, they are not.
This isn’t exactly the 1970s, when nine schools accounted for 69 of 80 spots in the year-end AP polls, but it’s not far off. And it becomes easy to forget that one of the names in the current list of dominant forces is a newbie of sorts.
At the end of 2014, Dabo Swinney’s Clemson was regarded as one of a few programs on the rise. The Tigers had won double-digit games for four straight seasons and had squeezed out a top-10 finish, the program’s first in 23 years, in 2013. They had signed a blue-chip quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who looked the part when given the chance, but he had torn his ACL at the end of 2014. AP voters cautiously started the Tigers 12th in 2015, two spots behind three-time defending ACC champ Florida State.
They ignited in 2015, of course, reaching the national title game, then winning it the next season. They’ve gone 79-7 over the past six years, ranking No. 1 in the AP poll at least briefly each year and making six consecutive CFPs. Watson was the first of many five-star quarterbacks signed by Swinney, who invested heavily in his pool of assistants, raised the program’s overall recruiting game (Clemson averaged 8.0 ESPN 300 signees from 2011 to 2014 and 14.3 from 2018 to 2021) and slowly built a purple-and-orange ACC Death Star. The Tigers had won two league titles from 1989 to 2014; they’ve now won six in a row.
While so much of this sport is dominated by the same schools that have always been members of the oligarchy — Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma were on the 1970s blue bloods list, too, after all — Clemson followed a script that technically anyone with power conference money, an invested fan base and good, old-fashioned commitment can follow: make a good hire, support that hire, win a little bit, recruit better and better, win more and more.
Just because almost no one actually pulls this off doesn’t mean no one else can. And someone else will at some point.