Two months ago, Clemson football was done. Kaput. Over. Finished. The Tigers‘ gridiron obituary was in the process of being written as contrarian head coach Dabo Swinney bitterly berated fans and cantankerously defended his Grandpa Simpson-esque approach to the new era of college football.
Meanwhile, longtime critics of the veteran head coach – including this author – were reminding people how quickly the Tiger program had collapsed following the departure of former defensive coordinator Brent Venables, the new head coach at Oklahoma.
Venables was the key to Clemson’s recent success, I often noted, and the 2023 iteration of the Tiger program seemed to prove my theory correct. Following a 24-17 loss to NC State on October 28, 2023, Clemson – the defending ACC champion and preseason No. 9 team in America – had fallen to 4-4 on the season. Not only that, the Tigers seemed poised to fall even further with contests looming at home against then-No. 12 Notre Dame and then-No. 20 North Carolina.
Not to mention a rivalry game on the road …
The hashtag #Clemsoning – buried for the better part of a decade – appeared poised to make a comeback as some Tiger fans pondered the possibility of the program’s first losing season since 2010.
Well, rumors of the Tigers’ demise appear to have been at least somewhat exaggerated Beginning with a 31-23 upset of the Fighting Irish on November 4, Clemson reeled off wins in each of its final five games of 2023 – including a thrilling 38-35 victory over Kentucky in the 2023 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. The dramatic come-from-behind win over the Wildcats – which saw Swinney’s team overcome an 11-point fourth quarter deficit – gave Clemson nine victories for the thirteenth consecutive season. And while the final polls won’t be released for several weeks, Clemson is assured of its thirteenth consecutive Top 25 finish (a run which includes seven Top Ten finishes, six playoff appearances and a pair of national championships).
That is definitional dominance, people … but this year’s Tiger team may have shown the most resolve of any of Swinney’s squads with its late season surge (and gritty Gator Bowl win).
Trailing 21-10 entering the fourth quarter, Clemson cut the Wildcats’ lead to five points on junior tailback Phil Mafah‘s second touchdown run of the game – his first of three in the final stanza. Two Wildcat turnovers later and the Tigers had stormed to a 27-21 lead – the first of five lead changes in the final seven minutes of the game.
That first lead change came courtesy of a 29-yard gallop by Mafah – his longest run of the game.
Kentucky answered three plays later when sophomore wide receiver Barion Brown hauled in a 60-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Devin Leary to reclaim the lead 28-27. Next came a miraculous 52-yard field goal from Clemson kicker Jonathan Weitz – a lucky bounce off the crossbar that put Clemson back on top 30-28. Just three plays after that, though, the Cats were back on top 35-30 when senior tailback Ray Davis scored from a yard out (a drive keyed by Leary’s 72-yard pass to sophomore tight end Jordan Dingle).
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With 2:39 left to play in the game, the Tigers’ season was placed on the shoulders of its much-maligned offense – which struggled for most of the year under sophomore starting quarterback Cade Klubnik. Working in front of the first-year starter? A porous offensive line that gave up eight sacks on the afternoon (including two on the final drive).
With the exception of an intentional grounding penalty, though, Klubnik didn’t miss on the Tigers final drive – completing all eight of his passes for 71 yards. Finishing it off? Who else but Mafah – whose fourth rushing touchdown with seventeen seconds left put Clemson ahead for good 38-35. Mafah – a 6-foot-1, 230-pound native of Loganville, Georgia – also had a critical fourth down conversion on the Tigers’ game-winning drive en route to earning MVP honors.
After a last-second interception sealed the win, Swinney fell to his knees on the sidelines and savored his ACC record twelfth bowl victory.
“(Going) 4-4 at a place like Clemson?” Swinney told reporters after the game. “That creates a lot of noise, narratives, doubt, leadership challenges – these guys chose to continue to believe.”
Make no mistake: Tiger fans accustomed to playoff appearances and championship trophies remain frustrated by the program’s decline over the last two seasons. And I’m still pretty confident in my assessment that Venables – not Swinney – was the key ingredient in Clemson’s championship run. But credit Swinney and his team for not giving up on each other at a point in the season when everyone else in the college football left them for dead.
That’s the sort of thing that can reorient a program’s trajectory real quick … and potentially put Clemson back in championship contention.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.
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