How scheduling contributed to Clemson’s meteoric rise

By Amy Daughters -

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments (12)

I think it needs to be said that Notre Dame is built in to every ACC team’s schedule through 2036, after which the current grant of rights expires. Teams aren’t actively scheduling them, they are put on teams’ schedule by the ACC once every three seasons on average.

True Notre Dame is assigned to ACC teams, however Clemson has still chosen to keep 2 Non Conference Power 5 teams, and strong ones on the schedule. I sure wish more Power 5 schools would.

Hey, If Notre Dame goes undefeated as well…then what? Surely, the Irish are one of the most popular girls in school too? Does that leave the Trojans out? After all, they are from the (not up to par) Pac 10. I hope it happens and we have six undefeated teams with two left out….talk about reason for expanding the playoffs to 8 teams!

This is what College football needs to do for fairness in scheduling…

REALIGNMENT with POD SCHEDULING.

Big XII gets integrated into the other four conferences (Kansas gets dropped for Div 1 football).

Schedule = 3 games from own pod plus 2 from each of other 3 pods for 9 confernce games.

Add 3 non-conference games one of which must be from a POWER CONFERENCE for 12 total games.

Every team in a POWER CONFERENCE would play every team in their CONFERENCE every 2 years.

This plan allows annual regional rivalries within conferences and quicker rotation of non division teams.

Conference Championship game would be played between 2 Division Champs with the best conference records.

FOUR POWER CONFERENCES
ACC BIG TEN PAC SEC
ATLANTIC EAST PACIFIC EAST
A A A A
Boston College Indiana Oregon Florida
Louisville Purdue Oregon St. Georgia
Notre Dame Michigan Washington Kentucky
Syracuse Michigan St. Washington St. South Carolina
B B B B
Pittsburgh Maryland California Alabama
Virginia Ohio St. Stanford Auburn
Virginia Tech Penn St. UCLA Tennessee
West Virginia Rutgers USC Vanderbilt

ACC B1G PAC SEC
COASTAL WEST SOUTHWEST WEST
A A A A
Clemson Illinois Arizona Arkansas
Duke Iowa Arizona St. LSU
NC State Iowa State Colorado Mississippi St
North Carolina Nebraska Utah Ole Miss
B B B B
Florida State Kansas State Baylor Missouri
Georgia Tech Minnesota TCU Oklahoma
Miami Northwestern Texas Oklahoma State
Wake Forest Wisconsin Texas Tech Texas A&M

Notre Dame could play this conference schedule and still play Navy, USC or Stanford and one other non-conference game per year.

I enjoy the creative thought.

This totally separates The Power 5 conferences from the Group of 5 which is bold and it builds a lot of travel by putting one West Coast team per pod.

I do not like that teams get to pick their own out of conference teams, that creates many of our issues.

I do like the pod concept and playing every team in your conference every two years and at home once every 4 years.

Would these random pods be permanent or would they be re-arranged by performance. No one wants Alabama or Clemson in their pod permanently.

Pods could work inside the current conferences with 4 16 team conference that are basically Southeast, Northeast, Central and West Coast. Maybe a pod of Oregon, Oregon St, Washington and Washington St along with West Virgnia, Pitt, Maryland and Penn State would get more passion. Embrace the rivalries where rival alumni are often neighbors.

Actually the Confereces and pods read downward in columns. Not as innovative mix of pod members as it seems, just misaligned tabs for the columns.

Hard to give Clemson credit for scheduling Notre Dame. These games are mandated by the ACC. Plus Georgia and Auburn are regional rivals – would be nice to see Clemson play a national game, you know, fly somewhere with a different environment (Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.). Then they would get credit for creative scheduling.

Each conference has 9 teams with 7 Power conferences and the remaining conferences, forming the group of 6. During the regular season each Power conference member must play at least 2 power conference opponents out of conference or a combination of 2 power and independent opponents. Power 7 teams can have no more than 14 games in its home stadium over a 2-year period.

For example Team X has 8 home games in 2018, it can only have 6 home games in 2019 and may have up to 8 home games again in 2020.

After each team plays 12 games over 13-14 weeks, the College Football Playoff Committee will choose 10 teams to play in Select games the first Saturday in December. One member from each power conference will be chosen for the select games, as well as 1 team from the group of 6, and 2 at-large teams. The games will be played in Arlington, TX, Atlanta, GA, Charlotte, NC, Indianapolis, IN, and Santa Clara, CA. The 4 teams chosen for the College Football Playoff will be chosen from those that participate in these games. New Year’s Six games participants will be chosen from the teams that played in select games but did not qualify for the playoff as well as traditional conference affiliations. TV rights for all power 7 conferences will be split between CBS/CBS Sports Network and ESPN/ABC, as well as rights to Select games and the College Football Playoff games and affiliated bowls.

Power 7

ACC (ESPN TV)

Clemson
Duke
Florida State
Georgia Tech
Maryland
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Virginia
Wake Forest

Big East (CBS TV)

Boston College
Louisville
Miami (FL)
Penn State
Pittsburgh
Rutgers
Syracuse
Virginia Tech
West Virginia

Big- 9 (Formally Big 12) (ESPN TV)

Colorado
Iowa
Iowa State
Kansas
Kansas State
Nebraska
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
Utah

Great Lakes (Formally Big 10) (ESPN TV)

Illinois
Indiana
Michigan
Michigan State
Minnesota
Northwestern
Ohio State
Purdue
Wisconsin

Pac-9 (Formally Pac-12) (ESPN TV)

Arizona
Arizona State
California
Oregon
Oregon State
Stanford
UCLA
Washington
Washington State

SEC (CBS TV)

Alabama
Auburn
Florida
Georgia
Kentucky
Missouri
South Carolina
Tennessee
Vanderbilt

Southwestern (CBS TV)

Arkansas
Baylor
Louisiana State
Mississippi
Mississippi State
Texas
Texas A&M
Texas Christian
Texas Tech

Independents

Army
Ball State
Brigham Young
Buffalo
Connecticut
Hawaii
Liberty
Massachusetts
Navy
New Mexico State
Northern Illinois
Notre Dame
Southern California

American

Central Florida
Cincinnati
East Carolina
Houston
Memphis
South Florida
Southern Methodist
Temple
Tulane

Conference-USA

Alabama-Birmingham
Charlotte
Florida Atlantic
Florida International
Marshall
Middle Tennessee
Old Dominion
Southern Mississippi
Western Kentucky

Ohio-Michigan (Formally MAC)

Akron
Bowling Green
Central Michigan
Eastern Michigan
Kent State
Miami (OH)
Ohio
Toledo
Western Michigan

Mountain West

Boise State
Fresno State
Nevada
Nevada Las Vegas
New Mexico
Utah State
San Diego State
San Jose State
Wyoming

Presidents

Air Force
Colorado State
Louisiana Tech
North Texas
Rice
Texas-El Paso
Texas-San Antonio
Texas State
Tulsa

Sunbelt

Arkansas State
Appalachian State
Coastal Carolina
Georgia Southern
Georgia State
Louisiana
Louisiana-Monroe
South Alabama
Troy

2018 Select Game Model

Qualifiers
Clemson (ACC Champions)
Penn State (Big East Champions)
Oklahoma (Big 9 Champions)
Ohio State (Great Lakes Champions)
Washington (Pac-9 Champions)
Alabama (SEC Champions)
Louisiana State University (Southwest Champions)
Central Florida (Group of 6)
Notre Dame (At-Large)
Georgia (At-Large)

All games played Saturday December 1st
Arlington: Oklahoma vs. Ohio State 6pm CBS
Atlanta: Alabama vs. Louisiana State 12pm ABC
Charlotte: Clemson vs. Central Florida 2pm CBS
Indianapolis: Notre Dame vs. Georgia 8pm ABC
Santa Clara: Washington vs. Penn State 4pm ABC

Playoff Semi-Finals
Orange Bowl: Alabama vs. Oklahoma Sat Dec 29 7:30pm ABC
Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Clemson Sat Dec 29 3:30pm CBS

New Year’s Six
Fiesta Bowl. Utah vs. Louisiana State New Year’s Eve 3pm ABC
Peach Bowl Penn State vs. Central Florida New Year’s Day 1pm CBS
Rose Bowl Washington vs. Ohio State New Year’s Day 5pm ABC
Sugar Bowl Georgia vs. Michigan New Year’s Day 8:30pm CBS

Bowl Tie-Ins

When not hosting a Semi-Final game each New Year’s Six Bowl will have a tie-in with one or two conferences, hosting either the conference champion or the next highest rated team from that conference once the teams from the select games have been placed in New Year’s Six games.

Cotton Bowl: Southwestern Conference vs. At-Large CBS TV
Fiesta Bowl: Big-9 Conference vs. At-Large ABC TV
Orange Bowl: ACC Conference vs. At-Large ABC TV
Peach Bowl: Big East Conference vs. At-Large CBS TV
Rose Bowl: Great Lakes Conference vs. Pac-9 Conference ABC TV
Sugar Bowl: SEC Conference vs. At-Large CBS TV

Remaining Bowl Games

Each conference may have a maximum of 5 teams representing it in a bowl game. At-Large teams can replace open slots. Each team that plays in a bowl must have a minimum of 7 wins.

“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.”

Well that would be pretty difficult to have happen since USC plays Alabama. But replacing Alabama with a Georgia, Florida, Auburn, or LSU also makes your point to a certain degree. Although at some point Oklahoma will have lost its luster with its performances against elite competition and Oklahoma’s major non-conference foe (Tennessee) is likely worse than Virginia Tech’s (Penn State). I don’t think it’s a rock-solid argument that a hypothetical 5 undefeated conference champions would result in Virginia Tech being left out.

2009 might be the last year Clemson didn’t schedule 2 BCS/P5 opponents out of schedule, but I think it’s worth giving that an asterisk. One of the non-BCS opponents was 12-1 TCU who played in the Fiesta Bowl and is now in the Big 12. Definitely a harder game than playing a P5 bottom feeder.