Tennessee football: Clemson Tigers success comes at expense of Vols missteps

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 07: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers celebrates with head coach Dabo Swinney against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the fourth quarter in the College Football Playoff National Championship at Levi's Stadium on January 07, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 07: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers celebrates with head coach Dabo Swinney against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the fourth quarter in the College Football Playoff National Championship at Levi's Stadium on January 07, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

Tennessee football’s struggles the past decade have come as the Clemson Tigers have risen. Maybe it’s because the Volunteers took the opposite approach.

Back in 2008, Tennessee football and the Clemson Tigers both moved on from longtime head coaches. The Vols fired Phillip Fulmer as they stumbled to a 5-7 season, and Tommy Bowden resigned after a 3-3 start, leading Dabo Swinney to take over on an interim basis.

Fulmer and Bowden had only met once, in 2003, with Clemson winning in the Peach Bowl 27-14. They also had a connection dating back to 1998, when Bowden coached the Tulane Green Wave to an undefeated season. They were the only undefeated team left standing alongside the national champion Vols.

But when the moves were made after 2008, there was nobody considering Clemson even close to the level of Tennessee football. At that time, the ACC champion had finished outside of the Top 10 for the third time in four years, and it would happen for two more years after that. Clemson just didn’t belong on everybody else’s level.

Of course, a decade later, the Tigers have a dynasty. As they just came off their fourth straight ACC Championship and College Football Playoff appearance and their second national title in three years, shutting down the Alabama Crimson Tide dynasty, the Vols are sinking further into irrelevance. They can’t even find an offensive coordinator yet. So what changed?

Well, it all goes back to that offseason after 2008. The Tigers decided to keep their interim head coach in Swinney on a full-time basis. It wasn’t a splash move. Want to know who made the splash move? The Vols did, by bringing in Lane Kiffin.

Recruiting preferences

Kiffin immediately reworked UT’s 2009 recruiting class, and the most notable thing he did was push away Tajh Boyd and Bryce Petty in favor of Tyler Bray. In came Swinney to sweep up Boyd, and he had his quarterback of the future.

We know the story of Kiffin leaving for the USC Trojans and the Vols becoming a very undesirable job because of all the problems he left, including sanctions and character issues from his one bust of a class in 2009. That’s why Derek Dooley, not even among their top 5 options, got the job and inherited a very short stick. He and Swinney had the same record at 6-7 in 2010 with Swinney on the hot seat.

But the difference was Swinney had a plan. Boyd had gotten hurt in the middle of that year. Provided he returned to health, Swinney would use his elite weapon at quarterback and a cutting-edge offensive system to build his profile. Then, he could mix him in with a heavy focus on just one elite recruiting class and begin slowly to take over the ACC.

How could he get that class? Well, he would do every media interview possible and trade jabs with every coach he could. Swinney even would engage in a war of words with the other legendary coach in the state of South Carolina, Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier. It worked. In 2011, Swinney had a Top 10 class with four five-stars led by Sammie Watkins.

Different directions

In 2011, Tennessee football was doing things the old-school way, running a pro-style offense with a standard defense. The problem was they were playing in the SEC when the SEC was at its peak, and they didn’t have the talent to compete with the other elite teams yet. Add in injuries to Bray and Justin Hunter, and you can see why they stumbled to 5-7.

The Tigers, meanwhile, rebounded from a 6-7 season to go 10-4. Swinney, meanwhile, maximized his weapons in Boyd and Watkins. He won the ACC Championship in the process, but after that, the Vols would have another connection that took their programs in further opposite directions.

Dooley was looking for a new defensive coordinator, and UT grad Kevin Steele, who was in that position with Clemson, was his top choice. But Steele then gave up 70 points in the Orange Bowl to the West Virginia Mountaineers. So rather than get the Tennessee job, he was simply fired by Clemson.

This was where the programs made separate decisions that changed their future forever. Swinney took another reject, Brent Venables, from another major program in the Oklahoma Sooners, as Bob Stoops was bringing back Mike Stoops to replace him as defensive coordinator. Meanwhile, Dooley settled on Sal Sunseri, a guy who had never called plays before.

Those decisions were huge. Clemson went 11-2 in 2012 and had its first Top 15 finish since 1990, finishing No. 11 in the AP Poll and No. 9 in the Coaches Poll. We know the story of how the Vols’ historically bad defense forced them to a 5-7 season and got Derek Dooley fired. Well, by this point, the programs were in totally different states. But it became clear very soon after.

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Swinney ascends Clemson over Tennessee

Although Clemson was better than Tennessee football in 2011 and 2012, the assumption was that the Vols were still a better program and simply needed a new head coach to right the ship. Butch Jones seemed to be that guy, and he immediately won fans over with Top 5 classes in 2014 and 2015.

Meanwhile, Swinney used the 2011 ACC Championship to capture two more Top 15 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013. As the Florida State Seminoles were emerging as a dynasty under Jimbo Fisher and then Jameis Winston in 2013, Swinney’s plan was still in motion. With the 2011 Top 10 class loaded with veterans, a senior quarterback and lots of talent, he finally made his splash in 2013.

On opening day, as Jones won his first game on Rocky Top, Swinney’s Tigers upset the national title contending Georgia Bulldogs. He and Boyd enjoyed another 11-2 season, only losing to Winston and the Seminoles along with the South Carolina Gamecocks. But they beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Orange Bowl for their first AP Top 10 finish since 1990.

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Boyd left in 2013, but in came Deshaun Watson in 2014. He became the starter midway through the year as Clemson had a rebuilding 10-3 season. But this is where Swinney began to win recruiting battles.

After a Top 10 class in 2011 and three straight Top 15 classes to follow, he scored a No. 4 ranked class heading into 2015. With Winston gone, Clemson cruised to an undefeated season and national championship loss.

Another Top 10 class came in 2016, and that was the year the Tigers emerged as the national champions. As they began to score big classes, Tennessee football began to suffer again. But the final nail in the coffin was 2017.

Butch Jones lost out on two wide receivers from East Tennessee in Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers in that class. As a result, after a disappointing 9-4 season in which an SEC East title was on the table, the fall of the Vols was becoming clear. Swinney, even after losing Watson, was able to use his elite recruiting to still make the playoff in 2017.

Then, in 2018, Swinney once again took a Tennessee football reject. Jones didn’t go after Trevor Lawrence despite him growing up a Vols fan. So, just like he did with Boyd nearly a decade earlier, Swinney took Lawrence.

And, well, you saw what happened Monday night. Higgins and Lawrence came up huge. Rodgers had two catches. Clemson supplanted Alabama as the dominant team in the sport. And while Swinney is enjoying his second national title in three years, he’s in a much better place than either UT coach who rejected a quarterback that he ended up taking.

Kiffin is now stuck at Florida Atlantic trying to build a new program. Jones was an offensive analyst at Alabama, losing to players he didn’t lure to the Vols on Monday. He’s now the tight ends coach for the Maryland Terrapins.

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Then there’s Tennessee football. The Vols, on their fourth head coach since Fulmer, have lost all positioning against Clemson. And while they hope Jeremy Pruitt will restore the program, he still can’t seem to find an offensive coordinator. Maybe they’ll return to prominence soon. But with Swinney rolling, that’s now harder than ever.