Clemson 'has never been better,' confident Swinney says

The best of Clemson's 2022 college football season (2:28)

Relive some of the Clemson Tigers' best plays from their ACC winning college football season in 2022. (2:28)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson has not made it to the College Football Playoff the last two seasons, prompting some outside the program to question where the Tigers are headed.

But coach Dabo Swinney remains adamant that his program has never been better, and will be one of the teams competing for a spot in the playoff this season, he told ESPN during a wide-ranging interview in his office Monday.

"People, they need stories and it's a story if Clemson went to six playoffs in a row and then didn't make it. What's wrong with them?" Swinney said. "There's nothing wrong with Clemson. There's nothing wrong with our program. In fact, I would argue, honestly, our program has never been better."

When asked why he feels that way, Swinney said, "Our people, the kids on this roster, the talent, our coaches, our support staff, our administration, our infrastructure, our connectivity. I'm better now than I've ever been as a head coach. It's not even close, where I am now to where I was in '13, when we won our first BCS game. Never been better."

Swinney, entering his 16th year as Clemson's coach, made perhaps the splashiest move of the college football offseason when he decided to hire TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley to get his offense back on track. Clemson has not played up to its own standards on offense, starting in 2021, when DJ Uiagalelei struggled as the starter.

After offensive coordinator Tony Elliott left to become Virginia coach, Swinney promoted quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter to offensive coordinator.

Though Clemson improved -- gaining 40 more yards per game than the previous year -- the Tigers were still not close to the standard they had come to expect and ranked No. 47 in the country in total offense. Uiagalelei struggled at times, and then freshman Cade Klubnik took over for the ACC championship game and Orange Bowl.

But it was that Orange Bowl performance in which Clemson ran over 100 plays but scored only 14 points in a loss to Tennessee that had Swinney re-evaluate what to do about the offense. He called USC coach Lincoln Riley to go over a list of candidates and asked about his brother, Garrett, who had helped transform the TCU offense and quarterback Max Duggan into a Heisman Trophy finalist.

"I told Lincoln, 'I'm not honestly I'm really not sure I'm going to make a change,'" Swinney said. "But I just want to do the due diligence. Honestly, I probably would have stayed the course if it wasn't for Garrett."

Swinney spoke to Garrett the day after TCU lost the national championship game to Georgia. Within days, he was hired at Clemson, a somewhat surprising move considering Swinney had just promoted Streeter only one year earlier and talked about his loyalty to his assistant coaches in providing them opportunities for growth and job promotion.

"We got better, but still not to what I think we need to be, what we've been for a long time," Swinney said. "There's a lot of reasons for that. Brandon Streeter is an unbelievable coach, but I needed the position. Sometimes you need a different voice.

"I wouldn't change anything. Last year when I hired Brandon, he deserved it, and he earned it. So no regrets on that. If it goes a couple plays here or there, we probably don't have a change. That's the reality of our world."

That reality, of course, also means questions when a team that has made an unbelievable playoff run with excellence at quarterback no longer looks the part. Swinney described his decision to make this change as "the right time for the right guy."

With Uiagalelei transferring and Klubnik now taking over at quarterback, the timing fit. So far in the early part of spring football, Swinney has been pleased with what he has seen from Riley.

"With Garrett, he was the voice, the energy and the confidence that we needed in the room," Swinney said. "It's been really, really good reset, I think for everybody."

Some could argue this is a similar situation to 2011, when Swinney hired Chad Morris to help move the offense forward. That hire helped usher in the era of Clemson football many have come to recognize -- with six straight playoff appearances and a standard that has now reset expectations about what it means to have a successful program.

Clemson won 10 games in 2021; then last season the Tigers won 11 games and the ACC championship. But still, there were plenty of naysayers outside the program who watched as the offense struggled to find its familiar footing.

"We weren't good enough in 21 to go to the Final Four, and there's no crime in that," Swinney said. "Then we come back this year and win our league for the eighth time in 11 years. The more success you have, the more you have to really work to keep perspective, because people lose their minds. It's not that you're ducking a question or hiding. Sometimes you're just not good enough."

Swinney pointed out they were a couple of plays away from being a playoff team last year, after losing a fourth-quarter lead in a loss to South Carolina. He believes this year's team, with veterans returning across the board -- including Klubnik, running back Will Shipley, linebackers Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and a stacked defensive line -- will be in the mix for a playoff spot once again.

"This is a team that will have a chance, and that's all you can ask for," Swinney said. "If you've got a chance and you have the right work ethic and the right spirit to you, then you can live with the result that comes with it. I don't judge our teams by championships. I've never done that. That's a miserable way to go about your life. For me, it's more about who are they? What's the commitment? What's the chemistry? What's our leadership? I loved last year's team. We won the league. We got better, but we didn't quite get where we wanted to go. We've worked hard, and I do think this team this year will have shot."