In 2008, after Tommy Bowden stepped down as head coach of the Clemson Tigers, many wondered who would take over the good, but not great, program.
The Tigers had been "one play away" from several ACC championships in Bowden's time but could never close the deal.
Wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney was given the interim coach title while a nationwide search was conducted. However, a few days after a 31-14 defeat of archrival South Carolina, he was given the opportunity of a lifetime to be the full-time head coach of Clemson.
It was a big career jump for Swinney. There are few head coaches out there who got their first head coaching job at an AQ school without ever previously being a head coach or even a coordinator. But Swinney seemed up to the task, as he led Clemson to its first ACC Atlantic Division title and a 9-5 record in 2009.
Clemson looked to continue its winning ways in 2010 as it replaced star running back C.J. Spiller with two talented backs in Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper. The Clemson defense also returned mostly intact with future NFL players DeAndre McDaniel and Da'Quan Bowers.
Clemson also got a boost when QB Kyle Parker returned for another season instead of playing baseball. The atmosphere around Death Valley was excitement.
The Tigers played the first 10 quarters of 2010 like they could go unbeaten. After dominating North Texas and Presbyterian, Clemson went on the road to Auburn and took a 17-3 lead into halftime.
The dominating team that went into that locker room has not been seen since.
Clemson gave up three third-quarter touchdowns and lost to Auburn in overtime.
Then the Tigers lost to Miami, North Carolina and Boston College, which was 2-5 at the time.
While the Clemson defense found its way, eventually becoming the ninth-ranked scoring defense, the Clemson offense went stagnant.
After the loss of Ellington to injury, the Tigers scored more than 16 points in a game only once the rest of the season.
After a season in 2009 that saw Clemson "one play away" from the ACC championship, 2010 was a disaster, as they ended the regular season 6-6 with an ugly loss to archrival South Carolina.
So what now?
The most important goal now is to avoid Clemson's first losing season since 1998. The Tigers face South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on December 31.
If Clemson loses this game, the hot seat will become that much hotter for Coach Swinney. A 6-7 finish will make an already restless fanbase even more upset.
Next year also looks to be a challenge with many of the top defensive playmakers moving on to the NFL.
What must be done?
Dabo has to show the fans at Clemson that he can create momentum in the program when there is none. That starts with the bowl game. Ending the season on a positive note is always important because it sticks with you throughout the spring and into the following fall.
He then has to show he can bring in inexperienced players and make them win. Replacing Bowers, McDaniel and Jarvis Jenkins would not be easy for any coach, but for the Tigers in 2011 that is exactly what must be done.
Swinney must also continue to recruit well. The 2011 class is ranked in the top 10 on major recruiting sites. If he can continue this trend, he will get the players he needs to win championships. 2012 appears to be a year that Clemson will have many pieces of the puzzle in place, but can they survive 2011 to get there?
In order for Dabo Swinney to be a successful coach at Clemson, he has to do what no Clemson coach has done since Danny Ford: Win the games you are supposed to win. For the last 20 years, the Tigers have been in position to succeed many times only to lose a game they should not.
Clemson has not won an ACC championship since 1991. The next Clemson coach to do so will have the heat off his back and time to build the Clemson program to what it should be. 2011 will challenge Coach Swinney with a new quarterback and many new defensive players. If he can pull the team together and show the fanbase he can win, they will respect him for a long time to come.
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