On January 01, 2009, a fourth-quarter goal line stand helped Nebraska beat Clemson 26-21 to give Bo Pelini a win in his first (non-interim) bowl game. Pelini’s Cornhuskers gave Dabo Swinney a loss in his first bowl game in charge of the Tigers, and at the time it seemed a good foundation upon which to base future success.
Well, we know how that worked out. By 2015, Swinney’s Tigers were a special teams unit away from beating Nick Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide for a national title. Pelini’s 2015 saw him finishing a 5-6 season in charge at FCS Youngstown State, with his former club needing a win in the Foster Farms Bowl to finish the year at 6-7.
So what’s the difference? Both Pelini and Swinney started at the same time. How did Clemson scale the mountain to reach college football’s elite, while Nebraska languished in the “others receiving votes” valley?
The most glaring difference between Nebraska and Clemson between 2008 and now is how the two teams have recruited. As Dave Bartoo from CFB Matrix has observed, talent level is a critical factor in a winning college football program. Fans don’t like to admit it, but teams that win on National Signing Day are the teams most likely to win over the New Year’s weekend.
So take a look at how Nebraska and Clemson have recruited since that fateful Gator Bowl matchup in 2009. All recruiting rankings are 247 Sports national composite team rankings. I’ve also included the team’s record for that year under each coach, to get an idea of how each team performed.
|Year||Clemson Recruiting||Clemson Record||Nebraska Recruiting||Nebraska Record|
|2016 (to date)||11||???||34||???|
As you can see, at the start of the Pelini/Swinney era, there wasn’t a huge difference in the recruiting profile between the two schools. Their records bore that out, with Pelini looking like he had the brighter future.
But beginning in 2011, Clemson kicked its recruiting into gear, going from outside the top 25 to well within the top 15. As of 2011, Clemson’s average recruiting ranking nationally was 12.6, while Nebraska averaged 28 in the same time period.
It’s no coincidence that Clemson’s ability to break out of the four-loss quagmire that Nebraska languished in under Pelini coincided with its establishing a top-15 recruiting presence on a regular basis.
A Difference-Making Quarterback
If you watched the national championship game on Monday, you know that Clemson’s ability to compete with Alabama hinged on the brilliance of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. His 478 total yards (!) broke Vince Young’s record, and that was done against Alabama’s NFL-caliber defense.
Alabama was able to overcome Watson looking like the second coming of Russell Wilson only through big plays in the passing game and otherworldly special teams production. As Deadspin observed, Watson deserved better for the performance he gave.
We’ve seen that improved recruiting was able to move Clemson from an also-ran to a player on the national stage. But it was superlative quarterback play that vaulted Clemson to a true national title contender.
How has Nebraska’s starting quarterback play been since 2008? Well …
|Name||Comp.||Att.||Comp. %||TD||INT||TD/INT ratio|
|Taylor Martinez (2008-2012)||575||962||59.8||56||29||1.93|
|Tommy Armstrong (2013-2015)||474||878||54.0||53||36||1.47|
|Overall QB output (2008-2015)||1049||1857||56.5||109||65||1.68|
As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, those numbers aren’t good enough to win the B1G West. They’re sure as heck not good enough for Nebraska to put itself on the national stage in college football. And, disturbingly, Armstrong’s performance on the two most important quarterback metrics (completion percentage and TD/INT ratio) are significantly worse than Martinez’s.
Yes, those numbers don’t take into account rushing yards, or the intangibles that a kid like Armstrong brings to the huddle. But the fact remains that Clemson found itself a difference-making quarterback and was two special teams plays away from lifting a national championship trophy. Nebraska has struggled with inconsistent quarterback performances and is stuck in the “also receiving votes” category.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Clemson wasn’t really taken all that seriously as a national title contender. Sure, the Tigers had an impressive resume since 2011. But Clemson also had a habit of getting everyone’s hopes up, only to fall flat against lesser opposition.
Thanks to The Solid Verbal (a brilliant college football podcast that you should be listening to on a regular basis if you’ve read this far), this phenomenon of disappointment became known as “Clemsoning.” And, social media being what it is, #clemsoning became a big deal over the years. A big enough deal, in fact, that Swinney went on a three-minute rant about how unfair it was to single his team out for toe-stubbing (according to USA Today).
Nebraska fans should shudder how similar this sounds. Indeed, when SB Nation’s Football Study Hall looked into which teams “Clemsoned” the most, Nebraska was no. 5 on the list when blowouts were factored in.
What does that mean? That it can get better. After Monday’s performance, Clemsoning as a thing is done. Nebraska’s 2015 season was full of Clemsoning (Illinois and Purdue being the two clearest examples). So if NU wants to duplicate Clemson’s rise in the college football world, avoiding the creation of #nebraskaing (thank heaven that doesn’t roll off the tongue) would be a good place to start.