Six games into the 2008 season Tommy Bowden resigned as the head coach at Clemson, prompting the program to name then offensive coordinator Dabo Swinney interim. In December of that same year, Swinney – who had been an assistant since his coaching career began in 1993 – was introduced as the Tigers’ new head coach.
Swinney went 9-5 in his first season at the helm, dropped to 6-7 in 2010 and then never looked back, posting double-digit wins consecutively from 2011 through 2019. Included in the epic 111-16 run are six ACC titles and two national championships.
While the coaching change led directly to the emergence of the Tigers as a national powerhouse, another, much more subtle shift, put Clemson in position to be a national contender.
In 2006, the FBS level of college football went from playing 11 regular season games to 12. For ACC members that meant continuing to play eight conference games and adding a fourth non-conference opponent. It also set the scene for Clemson to eventually adopt a scheduling practice that would serve it well as its program began to rise.
The Tigers’ non-conference slate is anchored by the fact that they play South Carolina every season, which they’ve done consecutively since 1909. It means that since 2006 they’ve had three slots to fill in non-ACC play each year.
In 2006 and 2007, Clemson filled those places with a variety of non-Power 5 opponents – two from the Sun Belt and one apiece from the ranks of the WAC, MAC, Independents (Temple), and the FCS level.
In 2008 (Bowden’s final season at the helm and Swinney’s seven-games as the interim), the schedulers at Clemson made a significant move by adding an opening date with Alabama in Atlanta to its annual clash with South Carolina. The non-ACC slate was balanced by games against a pair of FCS opponents.
In 2009, Swinney’s first as the full-time head man, the Tigers added games vs. a trio of foes from the Sun Belt, Mountain West, and FCS to its standing date with the Gamecocks. It also marked the last time that Clemson didn’t play two Power 5 opponents in non-conference action.
From 2010-12, the Tigers added Auburn to the mix. In 2013-14 it was Georgia, in 2015 it was Notre Dame and from 2016-17 it was back to Auburn. Most recently, in 2018-19, Clemson played a home-and-home with Texas A&M.
Moving forward, the Tigers have an additional Power 5 opponent (beyond South Carolina) slated each season from 2020-37 with the single exception of 2021, when they’re scheduled to play UConn, Wyoming and FCS South Carolina State.
It’s worth noting that not only are Clemson’s schedulers continuing the practice of doubling up on Power opponents, they’re clearly remaining committed to booking quality foes: Notre Dame (2020, 2022-23, 2027-28, 2031, 2034, 2037), Georgia (2024, 2029-30, 2032-33), LSU (2025-26) and Oklahoma (2035-36).
By simply adding an additional non-league game vs. a Power 5 contender that exceeds the minimum scheduling requirements, Clemson has shifted the conversation on scheduling strength from “they have a weak ACC slate” to “they play two very difficult non-ACC games each year.” This is a key point if you’re going to try to make a case with the College Football Playoff committee. And though moving forward it will continue to be important, it was especially beneficial in 2015 – or before Clemson showed that they could not only compete in a bracket featuring the best programs from across the nation, but they could win the whole shooting match.
It was and is a genius move. And – the Tigers were not required to do it.
It’s important to remember that the eight-game league schedule is unique to the ACC and SEC, giving members the freedom to book four non-conference opponents as opposed to the three granted to Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 programs (by virtue of playing a nine-game league slate). It also means that (in a perfect world where all Power teams uphold the standard of playing one Power 5 foe in non-conference action) that SEC and ACC programs, by design, play one fewer Power opponent each season (eight conference games plus one Power non-league game) than those from the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 (nine conference games plus one Power non-league game).
While this should put both the SEC and ACC members at a comparative disadvantage in scheduling strength comparisons, the inherent (or perceived) strength of an SEC conference slate gives its members schools a pass – as in “we play one fewer Power team, but we’re in the most difficult conference.”
This makes weak non-league scheduling especially costly to the ACC teams, which are hampered with a set of weaker conference opponents and therefore at the biggest disadvantage when schedules are compared.
And this is what makes Clemson’s practice of scheduling not one but two blockbuster non-ACC opponents per season such a huge deal.
Compare it to fellow ACC member Virginia Tech, the last team from the Coastal division to win the conference title. The Hokies have only doubled-up on non-conference Power foes twice since 2010, facing both Tennessee and Notre Dame in 2016 and booking Ohio State and Purdue in 2015. Looking ahead, Virginia Tech earns credit for booking two such foes in 2021 (West Virginia and Notre Dame), 2023 (Purdue and Rutgers), 2024 (Vanderbilt and Rutgers), 2025 (Vanderbilt and Penn State), and 2027-28 (Maryland and Notre Dame). Though this move is commendable, the quality of the opponents the Hokies have scheduled are not anywhere near the stiff tests that Clemson has signed up for.
The only other ACC member that consistently shares a similar approach – not surprisingly – is Florida State. The Seminoles’ also have an annual clash with an in-state SEC rival built into their schedule, in this case it’s Florida. While FSU didn’t double up last season, in 2018 it added Notre Dame to the mix, in 2017 it was Alabama, and in 2016 it was Ole Miss. Moving forward, the ‘Noles add West Virginia (2020), Notre Dame (2021, 2024, 2026, 2029, 2030, 2032 and 2036), and Georgia (2027-28).
It means that if Florida State can right its ship, it, like Clemson but to a lesser degree due to the quality of its non-ACC foes, can approach the CFP committee with a legitimate argument for a coveted spot in the bracket.
To emphasize how critical this is – we’re living in a time when a group of football aficionados locked in a conference room are tasked with fitting five Power conference champions (plus Notre Dame) into a four-slot CFP bracket. Somebody is going to be left out and all the committee needs is a semi-valid reason.
Let’s pretend that next season Virginia Tech shocks the world by running the tables and wins the ACC while Ohio State wins the Big Ten, Oklahoma wins the Big 12, USC wins the Pac-12, and Alabama wins the SEC. For the purposes of comparison, we’ll say that all five teams are undefeated.
The Buckeyes, Sooners, and Trojans are all the most popular girl in school, the committee wants them AND they’ve each beaten all nine of their conference opponents plus played a quality non-conference foe and a league championship game. As for Alabama, it won the SEC, and they’re Alabama so, who cares who they played in non-conference action. Automatic pass! (The same coupon would likely apply to Georgia, Florida, Auburn, LSU…)
That leaves the poor Hokies, which met the scheduling requirements but didn’t exceed them, left out in the cold – playing in the Orange Bowl instead of for a national title.
Put Clemson in that same scenario – even before it won its two national titles – and it’s a completely different conversation. Why? Because they’ve played TWO top-ranked non-league opponents and a full ACC slate. And, in most cases, they’ve played two SEC teams.
While making a commitment to scheduling tough non-conference opponents is one thing, winning those games is another. That’s where you’ve got to go back to the brilliant choice – in 2008 – of Swinney as head coach.
While scheduling gets you in the conversation, leadership and getting it done on the field makes everyone stop talking.