When Clemson won the 2011 ACC title with a dominating 38-10 victory against Virginia Tech, coach Dabo Swinney called his team “a championship program” that “added to a great tradition.”
It was especially satisfying for a squad that had not won the conference championship in 20 years. Clemson was also not picked to win the ACC that year.
In 2015 and 2016, the Tigers were the overall favorites to capture the league crown, and they did so with a pair of close wins against North Carolina and Virginia Tech, respectively.
Before Saturday night’s 2017 ACC championship game against Miami, Swinney pointed out that Clemson wasn’t predicted by the league media to make it a three-peat.
That’s mainly because Florida State was expected to be a national title contender behind coach Jimbo Fisher and quarterback Deondre Francois. However, neither of them was even around when the Seminoles wrapped up their season earlier Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe.
Plus, none of the voters had ever seen Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant take meaningful snaps, much less believe he was capable of filling the gargantuan shoes left behind by Deshaun Watson, the most accomplished player in Clemson history.
But there the Tigers were Saturday night, hoisting the ACC trophy, sitting atop the College Football Playoff rankings and completely locked into their third consecutive semifinal game after a 38-3 victory against Miami at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
This one is Swinney’s most impressive ACC title yet.
“I’ve probably enjoyed this team and this journey more than any team I’ve been around, because they’ve continued to ignore the narrative,” Swinney said. “We played our best game on the biggest stage tonight.”
The 2011 championship wasn’t expected to do it either, but you aren’t supposed to simply plug-play-and-roll when you’re replacing five offensive players who went on to the NFL. Or survive losing the heart and soul of the defense in linebacker Ben Boulware and sack leader Carlos Watkins.
Add in the ridiculous expectations. Anything less than a trophy and a playoff trip isn’t considered a great year after the 2016 national championship campaign.
Yet Clemson, which survived an October loss to Syracuse and won its last six games, keeps on plugging away, adding to that tradition and trophy case Swinney’s filled since he took over fully after the 2008 season.
Saturday also marked the most dominant performance Clemson’s had in an ACC title game. The Tigers didn’t rack up 600 yards of total offense like they did in 2015 or hold the opponent to 56 rushing yards like 2011.
They never gave the Hurricanes a chance at sniffing victory, though.
Clemson’s offense was nearly flawless in the first half, even when the Tigers tried to make a mistake. Ray-Ray McCloud followed a fumbled punt with another fumble after a catch, but tight end Milan Richard was right there to jump on the loose ball.
Bryant completed his first 15 passes in the game, and the Tigers scored three rushing touchdowns in the first 17 minutes.
Clemson played three quarterbacks in the rout.
The defense put the clamps on Miami’s attack from the onset, allowing just 3-of-16 third-down conversions and forcing three turnovers. A late fourth-quarter field goal was the Hurricanes’ first points on the Tigers since 2010.
Clemson looked like a complete team that is peaking at the right time. And when the College Football Playoff is announced Sunday afternoon, the Tigers will likely be recognized as the best team in the game.
Swinney hasn’t just added onto tradition. He’s created another level of tradition at Clemson.