Return to spread fuels Swinney's quick revival at Clemson

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Tajh Boyd, a former Tennessee commit, has blossomed in Clemson's spread attack. (Getty Images)  
Tajh Boyd, a former Tennessee commit, has blossomed in Clemson's spread attack. (Getty Images)  

It was 10:45 a.m. on Sunday when Dabo Swinney called and said he had a few minutes to talk.

"I just got through visiting with a recruit," said the Clemson coach. "And now I am going to church."

Such are the priorities of a man who woke up Sunday morning with the surprise team in college football. After beating Auburn, the defending national champions, and ACC favorite Florida State on consecutive weekends (the first time in 23 years Clemson has beaten ranked teams on consecutive weekends), Clemson is 4-0 and ranked No. 13 as the Tigers head for a showdown with No. 11 Virginia Tech (4-0) Saturday in Blacksburg.

"I like where we are, and I like what this team could become," said Swinney, in his third full season as head coach. "But I told our guys that we didn't listen in the summer when a lot of people said we weren't going to be very good. So we're not going to listen now when those same people say that we're world beaters. We just have to keep playing because this team can get better -- a lot better."

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Life is certainly different today in Pickens County, S.C., than it was at the end of last season, when Clemson finished 6-7. There were rumblings in the Tigers fan base that Swinney, despite the outgoing personality that makes him a top-drawer recruiter, might not have the gravitas required by a head coach at this level. Because of an offense that was worse than anemic (10th in the ACC at 334.6 yards per game), there were more than a few fans who thought it was time to fuel up the private plane and go get Rich Rodriguez, who was the offensive coordinator when Woody Dantzler and the Tigers used the spread to light up ACC defenses in 2001 (that year Dantzler became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.)

Rodriguez, who parlayed his time at Clemson into head coaching jobs at West Virginia and Michigan, is biding his time doing television work for the CBS Sports Network.

But Swinney took action. On Jan. 2, he fired offensive coordinator Billy Napier and decided that the spread formation was an idea whose time had come again. He hired Tulsa's Chad Morris, who learned the spread under Gus Malzahn (now at Auburn), and told him to take Clemson football back to the future.

"I just looked around at what spread teams were doing -- the way they were playing up-tempo and putting pressure on defenses and it became pretty clear that was the way to go," said Swinney. "I knew it would not be an easy transition, but it was what we had to do."

The learning curve in the Morris/Malzahn system is pretty steep for quarterbacks. But in Tajh Boyd, there was no doubt Clemson had the guy with the skill set to run it. Boyd, from Hampton, Va., originally committed to Tennessee in high school. But when Lane Kiffin became the Volunteers' head coach in 2009, he made it clear that he would not have room for a dual-purpose quarterback in his pro-style offense. That's when Boyd signed with Clemson.

He redshirted in 2009 and played sparingly last season behind Kyle Parker. After a tentative 2011 spring practice learning the offense, it is fair to say Boyd has blossomed in his first four games under Morris. He has already become the only quarterback in Clemson history to pass for more than 300 yards in four consecutive games and leads the ACC in passing yards per game (313.8). He has already set Clemson records for passing yards in consecutive games (730), three consecutive games (995) and four consecutive games (1,255).

Clemson's offense is averaging just over 500 yards a game, with 13 plays of 30 yards or more. Here is the really good news: Boyd has thrown 13 touchdown passes with only one interception.

"We never had any doubt that Tajh would be good in this offense, but he's picked it up much quicker than we thought," said Swinney. "He's a special player."

For this offense to be successful, Clemson also needed a difference-maker at one of the other skill positions. They have certainly found that in freshman receiver Sammy Watkins of Fort Myers, Fla. Watkins didn't ease into college football. He has exploded. His 10 catches for 155 yards against Auburn was a school record for a freshman. He has already posted three games with more than 175 all-purpose yards, the first Clemson freshman to do that.

"He's got blinding speed and you just don't coach that," said Swinney. "He finished second in the 100 meter dash in the state track meet [as a junior]. The good news is that we also signed the guy who beat him [freshman RB Mike Bellamy]."

So there have already been a bunch of "firsts" in this season for Clemson. But there are some realities that Swinney and the Tigers must face before everyone gets a little too giddy over the 4-0 start:

They were awful on the road last season with a 1-4 record (the win was over Wake Forest). Clemson hasn't won at Virginia Tech since 1989. The last time Swinney went to Blacksburg as an assistant, the Tigers were 7-1 and lost 24-7. This is Clemson's first trip after four consecutive home games.

"You're talking about a program that has been dominant since they got in the ACC [four championships in seven seasons]," said Swinney. "It's a tough, tough place to play. Our young guys have not been on the road. This is going to be a heck of a way to break them in."

Here is another reality. Clemson has had its moments over the past 20 years. The Tigers reached the ACC championship game in 2009 only to lose to Georgia Tech. They have had good starts only to stumble down the stretch after the fan base had raised its hopes. After being a dominant program in the 1980s (five ACC championships and one national championship under Danny Ford), Clemson has not won an ACC championship since 1991, Ken Hatfield's second year as coach.

"We have certainly been in position to have a big season before only to come up short," said Swinney. "But you have to keep putting yourself in that position and then find a way to break through and win. I think this team has a chance to be special, but you can't just talk about it. You have to do it."

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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