Clemson accomplished plenty under Dabo Swinney entering the 2014 Orange Bowl against Ohio State, including a win over No. 8 LSU in the Peach Bowl a year earlier.
But the Tigers’ only previous trip to a BCS game resulted in an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
Two years later, Clemson made up for that by beating perennial power Ohio State 40-35 in a game that lifted the Tigers’ program to a new level.
“It was huge,” Swinney recently told The State. “We had gone down to the Orange Bowl in 2012 and got our butts kicked and came back the next year and obviously had a big win against LSU, but to be back in the Orange Bowl again two years later and to be playing The Ohio State, and to win that game and our first BCS win, it was kind of the next step for us. It was another step up the mountain along our journey.”
That Clemson team was similar to this one in several ways.
It was led by a dual-threat quarterback in Tajh Boyd, who had plenty of talented receivers around him, including a star in Sammy Watkins. Defensively, the Tigers were stout up front, led by Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett.
Clemson’s best playmakers made big play after big play against the Buckeyes.
Boyd passed for 378 yards, rushed for 127 and had six total touchdowns. Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two scores, and Beasley and Jarrett combined for five tackles for loss.
“We had a hard time stopping them. They had Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd and very good players on defense, too,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
“It was a battle back-and-forth, great plays on both sides,” Swinney recalled. “Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins were just unbelievable.”
This Clemson team has a dual-threat quarterback in Deshaun Watson, with a talented group of playmakers around him, led by star Mike Williams. It also has a strong defensive front with Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins leading the way.
Meyer said slowing down Watson and company will be a tremendous challenge.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Meyer said.
Since that game, both programs have been among the best in college football.
Clemson is 36-5 over the past three years, while Ohio State is 37-3. Both teams are making their second appearance in the playoff, and the Buckeyes won the 2014 national title.
Recruiting is a big reason why the programs have had success. Ohio State’s past four recruiting classes were ranked in the top 7, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, while Clemson has consistently put together top-15 classes under Swinney.
“We see them all the time,” Meyer said of recruiting against Clemson. “We know their players because we recruit against each other constantly. I know Clemson very well.”
Swinney said you can’t overstate how important the win over the Buckeyes was for his program, as far as confidence and going out and recruiting better players on a national level.
“It gave us a lot of momentum going into the offseason and recruiting and just helped our brand grow a little bit more,” he said.