Notre Dame and Clemson will take the field in Arlington later this month in the Cotton Bowl college football semi-final. On January 7, 2013 Notre Dame suffered an embarrassing defeat at (then named) Sun Life Stadium while a year earlier on January 4, 2012 in the same stadium Clemson suffered their own shameful loss. Slumping off the field in Miami Gardens that night at the completion of his 3rd full season with the Tigers, Dabo Swinney was walking wounded following a 37-point loss to West Virginia.
The comments from Clemson fans afterward were brutal. These are all real-life comments culled from the internet in the wake of the loss: The program was soft, players were lazy and lacked motivation, practices were too easy, the S&C program was a joke, there was a culture problem, no spine from anyone on campus, and serious deep-rooted issues that needed to be addressed.
Eight days after the Orange Bowl loss, Clemson fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Still, many fans wanted S&C coach Joey Batson’s head on a stick* as well. Following another week into late January the Tigers hired Brent Venables away from Oklahoma by doubling his salary to over $850,000^ per year. The hire was met with some skepticism due to the reputation of the Big 12 and Venables being stripped of his play-calling duties when Mike Stoops returned to Oklahoma just a handful of days earlier.
*Batson remains in his role today, if you need more evidence that S&C is largely overrated in the grand scheme.
^Venables makes $2.2 million today, 2nd highest for an assistant in the country.
However, the addition of Venables would prove to be a watershed moment in Clemson history as the soon-to-be 48-year old has become the unquestioned top defensive coordinator in the country and linchpin to the Tigers’ success over the past 7 seasons.
During those opening months of 2012 you couldn’t get away from the term “Clemsoning.” It was everywhere, worked into seemingly every third joke on websites all across the college football spectrum. Sure, it was beaten to death but also provided everyone with plenty of giggles.
Clemsoning is now extinct.
Since the start of 2012, Clemson’s .882 winning percentage trails only the historical pace of Ohio State (.903) and Alabama (.916) with Oklahoma (.813) a decent step down in 4th behind the Tigers. Recent defeats to unranked Syracuse (2017) and #22 Pittsburgh (2016) brought us shades of Clemsoning but all of the Tigers’ other 9 losses since 2012 have come to Top 10 teams, including a trio of #1 National Champions and five teams that finished in the AP Top 5 rankings.
The funny thing is that Clemson’s embarrassing loss in the 2012 Orange Bowl really masked the progress Swinney was making. In his first 3 full seasons, the Tigers took home a pair of divisional titles and won their first ACC Championship in 2 decades. The high of winning the league for the first time in so long really exacerbated the low Clemson fans felt after such a high-profile loss to West Virginia.
Still, defense remained an issue despite Kevin Steele (then and now) having a strong reputation as a coordinator. The talent was there but the results just weren’t coming through on that side of the ball so much that Clemson finished 2011 73rd nationally in the defensive S&P+ rankings.
Venables is on a historic run as a defensive coordinator.
Venables’ arrival was crucial for Clemson but also an early nod to the power of advanced statistics. Although Oklahoma’s defense routinely led the Big 12 in most categories many Clemson fans weren’t especially thrilled about the Sooners being 55th in total defense following 2011.
In spite of Oklahoma’s occasional bloated defensive numbers in the Big 12 the S&P+ resume for Venables has been outrageously impressive and unassailable. He immediately moved Clemson up the rankings 39 spots in 2012 for a 34th place in the S&P+ rankings–by far his worst finish since the rankings began in 2005.
Outside of 2012, Venables has finished no worse than 17th in S&P+ and is currently on a 5-year run with the Tigers while placing no worse than 6th nationally, including the #1 current defense in the country, the top defense from 2014, and the #2 defense from 2017. Ten finishes in the Top 8 of defensive S&P+ rankings since 2007 is pretty absurd.
It’s possible that Notre Dame’s defense plays out of its mind and we’re looking at a low-scoring semi-final. Vegas has the over/under at 55.5 points right now and realistically the Irish will have to score 30 points to win. Clemson has only allowed 30 twice over the past 2 years, though. The addition of Brent Venables for 2012 has brought about a defensive stability that has allowed the Tigers to thrive at an elite level and will make it difficult for Notre Dame to break through to the title game.