Can Dabo Swinney's 'Clemson Way' still work? The Tigers are about to find out

Six straight playoff appearances and two national championships serve as Dabo Swinney’s bedrock that his way — the Clemson way — is the best way to run a program.

Recruit quality players and loyal families out of high school, develop them through the years and go win games. Lots of them, like 10 or more a dozen years straight.

It’s how Swinney turned Lil’ Ol’ Clemson into one of the biggest bullies on the college football block over the last 16 seasons. It’s a faith (in the system) based initiative and everyone knows Swinney’s faith rarely, if ever, wavers.

This is 2023, though. The transfer portal has changed the sport, allowing programs to fill natural roster gaps, rebuilds to occur almost overnight and old teams to remain old. It’s not just Deion Sanders hauling 50-some odd kids out of the portal in a single offseason.

It’s Florida State’s 12 or Michigan’s nine or even Alabama’s five.

Then there is Clemson, who took a backup cornerback in 2022 and another backup quarterback in 2023. That’s it. Two years, two guys; depth moves only. “We’ve been a developmental program for a long time,” Swinney said, with pride, noting his guys graduate and earn advanced degrees because of it.

He has no plans to change.

Unless, perhaps, he has to change.

Clemson lost to Duke on Monday, 28-7. Swinney has, courtesy of the aforementioned success, earned the right to brush it off as a completely chaotic night at the office, not a sign of systematic failure.

After all, Clemson entered the game 108-0 in its history when it gained at least 200 yards rushing and passing. It left 108-1.

What happened Monday was “incredibly disappointing,” the coach noted, but mainly a “self-implosion” courtesy of three turnovers, two blocked field goals, two failed fourth-down conversions, some bad luck and a few terrible decisions. Oh, and Duke is pretty good now. These aren’t the same old Blue Devils.

DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 04:Head Coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers walks arm in arm with his players before a football game against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina on Sep 4, 2023.  (Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dabo Swinney walks arm in arm with his players before facing Duke in the Tigers' season opener. (David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“People are going to see the score and make a judgment on our team,” Swinney said. “I love this football team. I see a lot of opportunity.”

Swinney is right about one thing: Everyone is making judgements, starting with a program built on old-school values which may be facing a new-school reckoning.

If Monday wasn’t, as Swinney believes, a referendum for the program, then it will arrive on Sept. 23 when Florida State comes to town with a lot more than a football game on the line.

After that run of postseason appearances, Clemson shuffled to consecutive three-loss seasons. This year was supposed to be a reboot and a return. Instead the Tigers are 0-1.

“You didn’t see a horrible football team,” Swinney said of Clemson’s play against Duke. “You saw a bad result. Everything is correctable. That’s the good news. … The only thing we know is we can’t be undefeated.”

What’s clear is that the elite quarterback play Clemson enjoyed under DeShaun Watson (2015-16) and Trevor Lawrence (2018-2020) is gone. Those two solved a lot of problems, but players of that caliber are rare. Getting two of them nearly back-to-back made it look easy. It isn’t.

Current starter Cade Klubnik was an elite recruit out of Texas, but he botched a hand-off near the goal line, threw a pick and went just 27 of 43 against Duke. The once-explosive offense was gone; the longest pass play was 21 yards.

Maybe cutting down on all the miscues could have led to a Clemson victory, but even so, this wasn’t an impressive-looking team. Duke was often as, if not more, physical and athletic.

All of that leads to the broader questions. The world has changed. Dabo not so much.

Consider those Seminoles, who after blowing out LSU sit in the top five of the polls the way Clemson once did. Swinney built his program to chase down FSU in the ACC but now it’s Mike Norvell in Tallahassee flipping the script and trying to race by Clemson.

Norvell is still heavily invested in recruiting high school talent. But he also isn’t shy about upgrading where he can with transfers who can provide immediate pop.

Against LSU, it was three touchdowns from wide receiver Keon Coleman, who arrived from Michigan State. Defensively, it was the line getting anchored by Jared Verse (44 snaps, two tackles), a late bloomer who was ignored by major recruiters before proving himself at the University of Albany.

There were plenty more.

Swinney may believe he can still defeat top programs who use a hybrid approach to roster building, but his fans could use some reassurance. Where once coaches bemoaned the portal and all but called transfers “quitters,” they now see it as an asset and hail the guys as “climbers.”

Clemson hasn’t jumped into that. Yet. Maybe Swinney never will. Maybe his way is the way. Maybe the Tigers' season can be salvaged simply by cutting down on turnovers and mental errors.

“One of the strangest games I’ve ever been a part of,” Swinney said.

Or maybe in a few weeks, the present (let alone the future) of the sport will become too clear to ignore.