Last night, the Clemson football program put an absolute walloping on Alabama, defeating the Crimson Tide 44-16 to take home their second national title in three years.
If you started watching college football closely over the last decade, you’d only know the Tigers as a perennial powerhouse with double-digit win totals every year since 2011. They’ve won two title games, appeared in three, and came away with victories in the Cotton Bowl (2018), Fiesta Bowl (2016), Orange Bowl (2013), and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (2012) to nearly pull off the New Year’s Six cycle (they lost in the 2017 Sugar Bowl, but have never appeared in the Rose Bowl, FWIW).
Before this elite stretch, however, Clemson wasn’t known as a cream of the crop program capable of winning the national title any given year. From 1950 to 2010, the Tigers have reached the 10-win threshold just six times, and just seven since their football program was established in 1902. The program saw stretches of fewer than ten wins from 1950-1977, and then again from 1991 to 2010 (nine wins in six seasons during that span).
The program won a national championship in 1981 and regularly reached bowl games, but no one would consider the Tigers one of the elite football powerhouses over the years. Even right before their stretch of greatness over the last decade, Clemson was just another decent program capable of winning anywhere from six to eight games a year, with nine-win seasons sprinkled in.
In Rivals’ yearly recruiting team rankings, Clemson didn’t finish within the top-10 at all before 2010 since the system was created in 2002. In fact, they finished within the top-15 just once:
19 (2010), 37 (2009), 12 (2008), 16 (2007), 16 (2006), 17 (2005), 53 (2004), 67 (2003), and 22 (2002).
In 247 Sports’ edition of the team recruiting rankings, the Tigers came away with just one top-10 finish and two top-15 finishes from 2001 (when their system was created) to 2010:
27 (2010), 36 (2009), 9 (2008), 16 (2007), 14 (2006), 15 (2005), 44 (2004), 43 (2003), 19 (2002), and 33 (2001)
So how did they gain so much momentum in such a hurry? One signature bowl victory.
After winning nine games in the regular season in 2011 and then adding another big victory in the ACC Championship game, the Tigers fell 70-33 in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia.
The very next year, Dabo Swinney led Clemson to a 10-2 regular season and a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl bid against No. 9 LSU. Unlike the year before, Clemson took care of business on the big stage, taking down the Tigers by a final score of 25-24.
They finished the year ranked No. 11 in the final AP Poll, and then followed it up with a top-15 finish in the 2013 team recruiting class rankings.
Ever since, Clemson has finished in the top-25 in both rating systems every year through 2019, with just one of the signing classes falling outside of either top-15 (Rivals or 247 Sports).
After their second championship victory in three years and becoming the first team in college football history to finish a season 15-0, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said something that caught my attention as he was getting interviewed on the field.
“No Hollywood producer can write it,” he said. “I’m just telling you, if I can do it, and these Clemson Tigers can do it, anybody can do it if you have the belief in yourself and what you’re doing, and you surround yourself with a bunch of great, young people that are passionate about winning. Tonight, we conquered a mountain that ain’t ever been conquered.”
Anybody, huh? Even, say, the Kentucky football program?
No, Kentucky is not at the status of Clemson football, and if you play the odds, chances are they never will be.
But as the Tigers have proven, placing an invisible ceiling on the future of any program just isn’t realistic. And if we’re being really honest, Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops doesn’t give a damn about odds or history.
Remember when Kentucky placed a College Football Playoff bracket in the weight room with the Wildcats penciled in with one of the four final slots?
“What have you done to get better today?” the poster, hung in the summer of 2017, said.
Following a 7-6 season, national college football fans and rivals laughed at the Kentucky football program for thinking they’d ever sniff the CFP. And if we’re being honest, Wildcat fans chuckled to themselves, too.
16 months later in October of 2018, the initial College Football Playoff rankings came out with the Wildcats listed at No. 9 overall. At 7-1 with an upcoming date with Georgia for the SEC East crown, the Kentucky football program felt “legitimate” for the first time in decades.
The Wildcats lost against Georgia, and then later stumbled on the road against Tennessee to crush their SEC Championship/CFP dreams, but still managed to close out the regular season at 9-3. Following their best regular season finish since 1977, Kentucky earned a bid to the Citrus Bowl, defeating Penn State 27-24 to finish the year 10-3.
When the final AP Poll was released this morning, the Wildcats finished at No. 12, good for the fourth-highest finish in program history. Kentucky finished at No. 6 in 1977, No. 7 in 1950, and No. 11 in 1949.
Coming into this season, it wasn’t a secret the football program needed to start breaking down more barriers if they wanted to be taken seriously under Mark Stoops and his coaching staff. And it didn’t take long before they did just that.
The first barrier was shattered in week two at The Swamp to end the streak against Florida. And then again in a dominating effort at home against Mississippi State. And again to push the South Carolina streak to five consecutive wins. Again by proving they can come from behind on the road to win SEC games like they did against Missouri. And finally by proving they can beat elite competition on the big stage against Penn State.
On a player-specific level, the Kentucky coaching staff has already proven they can rake in four-stars, along with grooming and molding two and three-stars into NFL talent.
Clemson has proven that slow, yet constant development year after the year is the blueprint to building a national powerhouse. It didn’t come at the snap of a finger, and they knew that. Taking shortcuts for recruiting success (Ole Miss) or in coaching decisions (Louisville) would only create long-term problems. It wouldn’t be pretty for a while, but the fruits that come in the end are all the more rewarding.
Mark Stoops is following that same path at Kentucky.
In every year under Stoops, Kentucky has either improved or maintained their win total from the season before. In six seasons in Lexington, Stoops has led the Wildcats to records of 2-10, 5-7, 5-7, 7-5, 7-5, and 10-3.
Over the last five recruiting classes, Kentucky has finished with team rankings (247 Sports) of No. 32 (2019) No. 36 (2018), No. 30 (2017), No. 34 (2016), and No. 38 (2015). And with the regular signing period yet to come in February with several elite talent still on the board, the 2019 class ranking is almost certainly going to improve.
Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow has said multiple times in the past that the Wildcats needed one signature victory to push them over the edge to the next level in recruiting, with regularly signing four and five-star talent being the end goal. Sources tell KSR the staff genuinely feels the Penn State victory to finish the season 10-3 not only did that for them, but also made Kentucky a hotspot for future elite graduate transfer targets.
The expectation is that the class of 2020 is expected to be the best in school history.
Yes, the Wildcats will be losing an elite crop of talent, as 10-plus Wildcats are expected to hear their name called during the NFL Draft this spring. To say that won’t hurt, at least temporarily, would just be lying.
But this Kentucky coaching staff hasn’t built this team for short-term success. They’re still two-deep at every position on the offensive line, have elite weapons at skill positions on offense, a deadly front-seven with a combination of fresh, young talent and seasoned veterans, etc.
Above all else, they have continuity from the coaching staff to just fine tune things this offseason and play more to the strengths of the next crop of talent, not work in a brand new system like we saw the first few seasons under Mark Stoops. They have established a plug-and-play system with versatility on both sides of the ball, which leads me to believe this program is absolutely capable of maintaining success.
Last night, the Clemson football program proved schools like Kentucky have the opportunity to break down barriers they didn’t even realize they were capable of.
Swinney said it himself walking off the field last night.
“I hope you get a little hope from us and a little inspiration,” he said. “If we can do it, anybody can do it.”
Why not Kentucky?