Seldom does one decision made in a long season of give and take transform a team from a contender to a national champion.
But in the exhilaration following Clemson’s 44-16 annihilation of mighty Alabama in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship game, the timeline to the title easily could be traced to the day Dabo Swinney simultaneously followed and broke his heart.
Four weeks into the 2018 season, the Tigers were fresh off a 49-21 win over Georgia Tech that improved their record to 4-0. Its offense had scored 153 points. Things were in cruise control.
Of course, this was essentially the same Clemson team that had been throttled 24-6 by the Tide in the CFP semifinals that January. Of all the observations Swinney made that night in New Orleans was how Alabama controlled Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant and his passing game. Swinney figured that reality might not hurt them in the ACC, but likely would compromise any chance the program had of winning another National Championship.
In 2017, Clemson had a quarterback named Deshaun Watson. And Watson’s versatility was largely responsible for the Tigers fourth-quarter comeback and eventual 35-31 win for the National Championship.
Before the 2018 season, Swinney landed a big-time high school All-American, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, 6-foot-6 and blessed with poise and a howitzer. Swinney gave him a chance to beat out Bryant in the preseason – he was that highly regarded – but ultimately stayed pat as the season began.
During the first four weeks, Swinney gave both QBs a chance to play. Bryant would start, Lawrence would relieve. And even though Clemson rolled, it had become clear to the coach that his offense lacked a key dynamic – explosion – when the freshman sat.
In those four games, Lawrence played well at times, throwing for 137 yards and three TDs against Furman, 194 yards and a TD against Georgia Southern. And against Georgia Tech, he was 13-of-18 for 176 yards and four TDS, leading the Tigers on five TD drives in six series at one point to become the ACC’s rookie of the week.
So, after the Tech rout, Swinney made the decision he knew would cause debate and consternation.
“You’ve got Deshaun and you’re like, ‘Man, we might not ever see another one like him,” Jeff Scott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator, said earlier this season. “And then, here comes Trevor.”
The day after the win, Swinney sat down and broke the news to Bryant, a player he deeply cared for and who’d lost only twice as a starter. He was out, Lawrence was in. It wasn’t personal. It was about instinct.
“There aren’t a lot of guys who, just by walking in the building, are an automatic tipping point guy, the guy who put you over the top,” said Swinney. “That was never the conversation in the building. From the time he walked into that building in January, just a couple of weeks removed from eating in the high school cafeteria, we knew he was the real deal. He was a leader, day one. And, oh, by the way, he can sling that dang football around, too, can’t he?”
Bryant took the news hard and decided to transfer to Missouri. Lawrence took the news in stride and carried the Tigers to the National Championship.
On Monday in Santa Clara, it was clear Swinney had made the right choice. Lawrence was brilliant, defying his age and comparative lack of experience to use his talented receivers to blitz Alabama’s defense with startling regularity.
At the end of the season, it wasn’t Heisman winner Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins or Tua Tagovailoa that people were taking about, it was Lawrence.
“My man is a true freshman,” Watson told ESPN after the game. “He’s got at least two more years to do work. He’s gonna be a legend. He already is. People know that now.”
Lawrence, the first freshman since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985 to lead his team to a national title, threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns. Against Notre Dane in the CFP semifinals he tossed for 327 and another three TDs. And now Clemson is the first college football team since the 1897 Penn Quakers to finish a season 15-0.
Of all the throws Lawrence made on Monday, the one that stands out was made with 28 seconds to play in the third quarter. The Tide was all over him in the pocket and he coolly cocked his arm from the Alabama 15 and hit Tee Higgins in stride for a touchdown.
Higgins and freshman Justyn Ross, who at times looked like Odell Beckham, Jr., in his prime, combined nine receptions for 234 yards and two TDs.
For some, Clemson won the game at the very beginning when sophomore cornerback A.J. Terrell picked off Tagovailoa and returned it for a Pick Six and 7-0 lead early in the first quarterback. That was the sign, they thought.
But after Alabama rallied and took the lead, the Tigers offense steamrolled the Tide. It gained 482 yards on only 63 plays, many of which excited Swinney so that he’d dash down his sideline pumping his first in joy.
“We’re just little ol’ Clemson,” said Swinney after the game. “We’re not supposed to be here, but we are. And we beat Notre Dame and Alabama to do it.”
Swinney was kidding, of course. His program is now elite, a championship contender from the first day of spring practice.
Now he has another quarterback, likely for the next two years, who may win Heismans and a couple more national championships. He might be the best who has ever played at Clemson.
And who knows, if Swinney hadn’t followed his instincts before Clemson played Syracuse on Sept. 29, no one would have realized it as Alabama’s walked away with another National Championship.