As Clemson got set to face Auburn last Saturday night in Death Valley, a particular set of people took interest in the game: not players, coaches or parents, but bettors.
From the moment the point spread was announced for this game, it seemed that virtually every bettor in Vegas threw down money on Gus Malzahn’s club. Clemson opened as close to a touchdown favorite, but by kickoff was favored by just five points, meaning that an inordinate amount of money came in on Auburn.
But then a funny thing happened, something that has become all too common for those who follow the Clemson Tigers: Dabo Swinney’s club went out and kicked you-know-what on the field. Clemson dominated Auburn in virtually every way a team can, holding AU to 119 yards of total offense and just six points, while tallying an almost unheard of 11 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. On offense, new quarterback Kelly Bryant emerged as a breakout star, as the Tigers won 14-6 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.
Looking back, this should have seemed so obvious for those who picked Auburn (myself definitely included): Of course Clemson would win. If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, who the opponent is, or what the name of the opposing head coach might be: Dabo Swinney and his team virtually always come out on top, even as everyone continues to doubt them.
Watching Clemson Saturday night made me realize one thing: Even after winning a national championship and accomplishing basically everything a coach can, Dabo Swinney is still, somehow, the most underappreciated coach in the sport. Digging deep into his resume, there might not even be a close second.
I understand this all seems preposterous. Swinney has a national championship ring, an almost unbelievable 30-2 record since the start of the 2015 season, dozens of guys in the NFL, and a fat $6 million contract – how could he possibly be underrated?
Only he is. Ask the casual fan who the “best” coach in college football is, and virtually everyone will mention Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, probably followed by Jim Harbaugh and maybe Chris Petersen, with Bob Stoops in the mix prior to his retirement in June.
Guys like Gary Patterson routinely get credit as the “coaches who do more with less,” and I bet if you polled most folks about the ACC, they would quickly rattle off Bobby Petrino or Jimbo Fisher as the best in the league. Tom Herman and Justin Fuente are the “rising” stars in the sport, leaving Dabo in a precarious middle, where he’s too good to be considered on his way up, but somehow isn’t discussed among the elite of the elite either.
In essence, he’s the Rodney Dangerfield of the sport. He just doesn’t get any respect (and yes, I apologize for that painfully outdated pop culture reference).
That’s the baseline for being “underrated,” especially when you consider that over the last four years, there’s probably no one (other than Saban) who has been a better head coach than Swinney, period.
As I mentioned above, Dabo has done everything a coach can do, right through his national championship this past January. For those who think that was some Deshaun Watson-fueled run to the top, think again.
Incredibly, last year marked the sixth straight season that Dabo has topped 10 wins, something that – as best I can tell – is something only Saban and Meyer can claim. He has also won three ACC titles since getting the head coaching job, beaten in-state rival South Carolina three straight times, and made the College Football Playoff twice in its three years of existence. The 38 Clemson players on opening day NFL rosters this season were ahead of more “traditional” powers Georgia, Michigan, Auburn and Oklahoma.
So yeah, that’s a pretty good resume. What may be even more impressive isn’t just how many wins he has claimed, but the caliber of his opposition. It’s fair to argue that no one – not even Nick Saban – has a better collection of victories over the last few years in college football.
Want a snapshot of just how good Swinney has been over the last few years? Going back to the 2015 bowl season, here are the teams Clemson has beaten: Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma twice, Florida State twice, and Auburn twice. Read that again. In the last 33 games, Clemson has beaten Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma twice, Florida State twice, and Auburn twice, and that doesn’t even include two wins over Louisville or a victory over Notre Dame.
Are you kidding me? Most coaches don’t pick up that many signature wins in a career! Swinney has done it all in a little over two years.
Oh by the way, let’s not forget that Dabo has been his best in Clemson’s biggest games. Incredibly, Dabo is 6-1 in the postseason over the last five years (8-1 if you include ACC title games), with two head-to-head wins over Urban Meyer over that stretch, two head-to-head wins over Bob Stoops, with victories over Saban and Les Miles as well.
Want a fun fact to throw around at your next cocktail party (too bad, I’m going to give it to you anyway)? Since arriving in Columbus in 2012, Urban Meyer has a total of three losses against the entire Big Ten. He has two losses to Dabo Swinney in the same stretch. Clemson also has as many wins against Oklahoma as Texas does over the last seven years. The Longhorns play the Sooners every year!
So yes, despite a national championship, Swinney remains criminally, egregiously, comically underrated… and I’m not totally sure why. I honestly believe part of it is that his name is “Dabo.” As I joked with someone, if his name was “Jim Swinney,” everyone would have given him his proper respect by now.
I also think it’s because of his demeanor. Having spent time around him at the College Football Playoff last year, he’s basically the anti-football coach. He isn’t steely or mean looking, and doesn’t give short, hyperbolic answers to the media. Instead he’s jovial and friendly and fun to talk to, and seems like a guy who’d be fun to have a beer with… even if he’s so hyper he’d probably drive you crazy while doing it.
Why doesn’t Swinney get his proper due among the game’s best coaches? Who knows.
He remains the most underrated man in the sport.