Why Dabo Swinney undoubtedly should be considered the best coach in America right now ... if he beats LSU
I thought it was a lazy take.
After last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship, the belief that Dabo Swinney had passed up Nick Saban as the best coach in college football reeked of recency bias. Yes, Swinney’s Clemson squad was fresh off a 44-16 beatdown of 14-0 Alabama, which marked the most lopsided defeat Saban had suffered since arriving at Alabama.
The “passing of the torch” narrative was ripe for the picking, and believe me, it was picked apart. The “Swinney is the best coach in America” people pointed to how he’d won 2 of the past 3 national championships, so obviously it was his time.
Why was that lazy? Well, it ignored the obvious. Alabama and Clemson went back and forth in 4 consecutive Playoffs. As far as I was concerned, it was a 2-2 battle. It was 12 months earlier that Alabama dominated Clemson in a Playoff game. Plus, the Crimson Tide had won 16 consecutive games entering the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship. That wasn’t exactly a sign that Saban was “passing the torch.” It was a sign that in the 4th round of the heavyweight fight, Clemson dominated to get back to even.
But if Swinney takes down LSU on Monday night, even I’ll have to admit that he deserves to be called “best coach in America right now.”
To be clear, that’s not saying I believe Swinney is better than Saban on the list of all-time coaches. That’s a separate discussion entirely. But it would be time for even SEC fans to admit that Swinney is the best in the business right now. Like, if you had to bet on any coach to win a national championship in the next 2 years, it would have to be Swinney.
Again, that’s only an open and shut case if Clemson beats LSU.
If that does happen — something that’s far from a guarantee — we’d be talking about a team that will have repeated as national champs with a 30-game winning streak. We’d be talking about a team that a year after handing Saban his biggest blowout loss ever — and to a team that put together one of the best regular seasons in college football history — would have beaten LSU in New Orleans.
Three national titles in a 4-year stretch would match Saban’s ridiculous feat that he accomplished from 2009-12. I bring that up because think about trying to make the case after 2012 than anybody but Saban deserved to be called “best college football coach in America.” You wouldn’t because you’d be laughed out of the room (more on that later).
Arguing against Swinney if he wins another title might not yield belly laughs, but it would yield some raised eyebrows. Any case made for Saban in that argument is strictly pointing to the historical elements. We often struggle to separate those discussions, but we should. Saban’s career résumé is better than Swinney’s. Point blank. But the game changes when you have a 4-year run as impressive as Swinney’s.
Speaking of that, this is how his Playoff era résumé would look like compared to Saban’s if (have I said “if” enough yet?) Clemson were to beat LSU:
Here’s the thing. It’s extremely close between those 2 coaches if you look at it over the course of the Playoff era. But if you simply take away that 2014 season and just look at 2015-19 — a 5-year stretch is plenty in terms of a sample size — it shifts in Clemson’s favor with a win against LSU.
(You’ll notice that this is still starting essentially when the Clemson-Alabama rivalry began … with the Crimson Tide winning a national title that year.)
There’s also that whole thing about Clemson coming off a consecutive national title compared to an Alabama team that in the last 2 years would have been smacked by the Tigers and then left out of the New Year’s 6 Bowl picture entirely in 2019. It’s essentially like you could flip the 2014 and 2019 seasons, and 2015-18 was the back-and-forth battle of concurrent dynasties.
Clemson, if it were to beat LSU, would again have to be considered among the top 10 greatest teams of all-time after another undefeated national championship season. This is the first time during this 5-year stretch in which either Alabama or Clemson would have had the better season in consecutive years.
And in case you were wondering, if Clemson were to beat LSU by just 1 point, the Tigers would have the edge in terms of margin of victory against common Alabama opponents by 12 points (add up the margin of victory each team had vs. Texas A&M, South Carolina and LSU).
But that’s not really what this is about.
This isn’t about Swinney getting respect for little ole Clemson, either. If the Tigers win on Monday night, he won’t need to bang the drum for his program. (He didn’t need to bang the drum before, ether. He just needed the ACC to have some resemblance of a non-Clemson contender.) Nobody will remember the weak ACC slate 5 years from now. Beating those undefeated, dominant Ohio State and LSU teams will mean far more than a sleepy late-September Saturday in Chapel Hill.
Say what you want about ACC competition and how Swinney wouldn’t be this dominant if he coached in the SEC West, but compare this 4-year run he’s on to Saban’s best 4-year stretch (2009-12):
My goodness, that’s incredible. And who’s to say Swinney’s run is over? He’ll return Trevor Lawrence next year and Clemson is in position to sign its first No. 1 recruiting class.
Praising Swinney’s success isn’t taking away from anything Saban did. For my money, Alabama is responsible for the most impressive decade in college football history, and there’s a good case to be made that — considering the level of competition — winning 5 of 9 national championships and going to 7 title games in a 10-year stretch is the most impressive team accomplishment in sports in the 21st century. Swinney has plenty of work to do to reach that and move himself into more serious consideration for the G.O.A.T. debate.
But that’s not what’s being debated here. What’s being debated is who owns the title of “best college football coach right now.”
You could still make a strong argument that Swinney deserves that title even with a loss against LSU. I’m no longer brushing it off like I did last year when the cliché “torch-passing” narrative was beaten into into the ground. Monday night won’t have that feel because it’s LSU, not Alabama, who will try to prevent Swinney from winning another national title. It’ll still go a long ways in cementing a legacy.
In other words, if you’re an Alabama/SEC fan who was sick of hearing about Swinney passing Saban last year, you better hope like heck that LSU ends Swinney’s 29-game winning streak on Monday night.
And if that doesn’t happen? Well, the internet might not be the place for you this offseason.