The 2015-16 year in Clemson sports should not soon be forgotten.
Two Tigers teams made appearances in national championship games, while three other sports won ACC titles. School history was made across a multitude of sports, as programs had their best seasons in many years and individuals established themselves among the top athletes in college sports.
From the beginning of the academic year, great focus was placed on the football team. The only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to finish the regular season undefeated, the Tigers won their first 14 games. The last of those wins, in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Orange Bowl, earned Clemson its first berth in a designated national championship game.
“It’s a special time right now,” coach Dabo Swinney said of his team, which lost 45-40 to Alabama in the championship game. “Seven years ago when I got this job, I knew that we would be here. It was just a matter of when.”
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Swinney won nearly every college football Coach of the Year award, while quarterback Deshaun Watson was Clemson’s first-ever Heisman Trophy finalist to make the trip to New York.
Clemson’s men’s soccer team had an equally successful postseason. Those Tigers won their first four games in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the national championship game, the College Cup final, where Stanford defeated them 4-0.
Mike Noonan, the head coach of Clemson’s men’s soccer team, was named National Coach of the Year by the NSCAA.
Larry Penley, Clemson’s longest-tenured coach, led the men’s golf team to its first ACC title since 2004, his ninth conference championship in his 33-year Clemson career.
Clemson’s newest coach, Monte Lee, led the baseball team to its first ACC title since 2006 in his first year with the Tigers.
“This team won 44 games, 24 come-from-behind wins,” Lee said last week. “I may coach the rest of my career and never have a team do that. That’s an unbelievable feat in itself.”
A YEAR OF STARS
As much as anything else, Clemson’s 2015-16 year in sports will be remembered for its individual stars.
No Clemson athlete has become a bigger star than Watson, whose 2015 season was the best ever by a Tigers quarterback. Clemson’s first Davey O’Brien Award winner, Watson was the first quarterback in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.
Clemson’s breakthrough star of this past year was Seth Beer. A true freshman who wasn’t even on campus for the first half of the academic year, Beer enrolled early out of high school and immediately emerged as the baseball team’s best hitter. He became the first freshman ever to win ACC Player of the Year and the first Clemson freshman ever named as a first-team All-American.
On the basketball court, Jaron Blossomgame was another breakout star. While Blossomgame was the Tigers’ leading scorer and rebounder in 2014-15, he took his game to new heights in 2015-16. Blossomgame averaged 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and earned first-team All-ACC honors.
Many of Clemson’s other top athletes from this past year have parlayed their success into opportunities to play professionally.
Nine Clemson football players, the second-most in school history, were selected in this year’s NFL Draft.
Four Clemson men’s soccer players, a new school record, were selected in the MLS SuperDraft.
Tevin Hester, who plans to participate in this year’s U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, completed his Clemson career by winning gold in both the 60-meter and 200-meter dash at ACC Indoor Championships and in the 100 and 200 at ACC Outdoor Championships.
Stephen Behr, who plans to pursue a career in finance rather than golf, became Clemson’s first men’s golfer to win the Byron Nelson Award and was also named as a first-team Academic All-American.
In Clemson’s nine sports that center around head-to-head competition, the Tigers finished 2015-16 with a cumulative record of 142 wins, 119 losses and six ties (soccer).
Although they ultimately finished outside the top 10 at NCAA Regionals, Clemson’s men and women’s cross country teams both opened their seasons with wins at the Winthrop Challenge, while the men also earned a win in the gold division at the Notre Dame Invitational.
Not every team at Clemson had a successful 2015-16 campaign. The women’s basketball and volleyball teams lost 26 games each, tied for the most at Clemson this past year.
Even though men’s basketball finished the year with a winning record (17-14) and tied a school mark with 10 ACC wins, its season was considered a disappointment, too. The Tigers failed to make the NCAA Tournament or NIT after losing their first ACC Tournament game to Georgia Tech.
“I thought our guys played a lot better than most people probably think down the stretch,” coach Brad Brownell said. “We’re doing a lot more things that people don’t realize, that don’t result in wins and losses, that are making this program better, and this program is 100 percent better than it was three or four years ago.”
After the Orange Bowl, Swinney explained that his message to his team had been to do things in a different way than other college football teams might.
“When you do the common things in an uncommon way, you command the attention of the world,” Swinney said.
Clemson did that.
Clemson has only won four team national championships in school history, and it hasn’t won any since men’s golf in 2003. Football might give Clemson its best shot once again in 2016-17. Athletic director Dan Radakovich, however, said in April that Clemson is looking to help all of its teams get better, as many of them did in 2015-16.
“We have 19 sports right now and we want to be good in all 19,” Radakovich said.