On Aug. 30, 2008, No. 9 Clemson kicked off the 2008 season against No. 24 Alabama in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide was coming off a 6-win regular season in 2007, Nick Saban’s first as head coach in Tuscaloosa. The Tigers had their highest AP poll ranking in eight years, their highest preseason ranking since 1991, and were favored to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
The game wasn’t even close. Alabama won 34-10, jump-starting a 2008 campaign that would see the Crimson Tide win 12 games.
Five weeks later, after a 3-3 start that also included losses to Maryland and Wake Forest, Clemson fired Tommy Bowden, who had an overall record of 72-45 through 10 seasons but had never won more than nine games in a single season. Much to the disdain of some Tiger fans, wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney was promoted to interim head coach — despite having never been anything more than a position coach.
In Hampton, Va., Tajh Boyd was completing his senior season at Phoebus High School, where he would wind up 43-2 as a starter, winning two state championships. A 4-star recruit, he was already ranked as the nation’s No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the 2009 recruiting cycle.
Boyd was piling up the offers. The 6-foot-1, 208-lb. quarterback had assumed he would go to Boston College, but higher-profile schools were knocking on his door — including Tennessee. The Vols had offered Boyd in February, 12 months before signing day.
“I talked to the coaches from Tennessee,” Boyd told Rivals.com’s Mike Farrell. “I called them and talked to Coach (Phil) Fulmer too. They told me they were very excited about me. As soon as they evaluated my film, they were very impressed and offered. I thought that was cool.”
Once Fulmer and the Vols offered, they immediately moved to the top of Boyd’s list, along with Boston College and West Virginia. Boyd had committed to the Mountaineers in March, then changed his mind in October — around about the time Clemson was firing Tommy Bowden. He would wind up committing to Tennessee on Nov. 2.
In Knoxville, Tenn., Fulmer was struggling. The Vols had opened the season with a No. 18 national ranking after winning the SEC East in 2007 (Tennessee lost to eventual national champion LSU in the SEC Championship Game.) But the Vols were bounced from the polls almost immediately after a 27-24, overtime loss to UCLA in Pasadena.
By the time Clemson fired Bowden on Oct. 13, Tennessee had fallen to 2-4, with losses to No. 4 Florida, No. 15 Auburn and No. 10 Georgia.
After an impressive, 34-3 win over Mississippi State — the Bulldogs had their struggles in 2008, but was coming off an upset win over No. 13 Vanderbilt — Tennessee managed to go on another losing skid, starting with a 29-9 loss at home to Alabama, which had climbed all the way to No. 2 in the polls since that season-opening win over Clemson in Atlanta. Saban’s Crimson Tide were still unbeaten.
On Nov. 1, Tennessee lost at South Carolina, 27-6, falling to 3-6. It was the final nail in the coffin for Fulmer, who was on his way to a second losing season in four years. It was ironic, because back in 1992, it was the Gamecocks that cost Johnny Majors his job in Knoxville with a 24-23 win in their inaugural season in the SEC. Fulmer, who was Majors’ offensive coordinator, was promoted to head coach.
Just hours after Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina, Boyd — who had visited Knoxville a week earlier — committed to the Vols. He was asked about Fulmer’s future. He said, “I know people are talking about that, but when I spoke with Coach Fulmer and their athletic director, they told me they didn’t think anything was going to happen. Plus, I have to like the school in general. And I love the school.”
Boyd became a part of what was shaping up to be an impressing recruiting class for Tennessee. His commitment pushed the Vols ahead of rival Alabama, to No. 6 in the national recruiting rankings.
The next day, the athletic director — Mike Hamilton — met with Fulmer. He told Fulmer that he would not be back for an 18th year in Knoxville. Fulmer, who agreed to finish out the season, began telling his staff of the decision that night. Two days later, he held a press conference to announce that he was stepping down.
Back in Clemson, incidentally, Swinney had won his first game as a head coach on the same day Fulmer was seeing his career crumble against South Carolina. The Tigers defeated Boston College, 27-21, ending their six-year losing streak to the Eagles.
In Oakland, Calif., Lane Kiffin’s rocky relationship with Raiders owner Al Davis had come to an end. Davis had attempted to force Kiffin to resign in January, after a 4-12 inaugural season, but Kiffin had refused. On Sept. 12, Davis wrote a letter to Kiffin, warning Kiffin that he was on the verge of being fired for “conduct detrimental to the Raiders.”
Finally, on Sept. 30 — three days after Clemson had been bounced from the polls with a loss to Maryland, and after Tennessee had lost its third game in four tries with a 14-12 defeat at Auburn — Davis telephoned Kiffin and fired him, calling him a “flat-out liar” and accusing Kiffin of “bringing disgrace to the organization.”
On Nov. 28, 2008, it was reported that Lane Kiffin would be the next head football coach at Tennessee, replacing Fulmer. The hire was officially announced at a Dec. 1 press conference.
Kiffin immediately hit the ground running. The day after he was meeting reporters and answering questions at his introductory press conference in Knoxville, he placed a phone call to Tim Boyd — Tajh Boyd’s father. He told Tim that he would honor Fulmer’s scholarship offer to Tajh, but it would probably best if Tajh looked elsewhere, because he didn’t fit the offense Kiffin intended to run in Knoxville. Simply put, if Tajh Boyd stuck by his commitment and signed with the Vols, he wouldn’t see the field.
Boyd, who had led Phoebus to an undefeated season despite playing on a torn ACL that would require surgery in a few weeks (he had still passed for 1,600 yards and 25 touchdowns), had a state championship game looming in four days. And, suddenly, he had other decisions to make. Would he go to Oregon, or would he go to Ohio State?
Something else was in the works, though. On Dec. 1 — the same day Tennessee was introducing Kiffin as its new head coach, one day before Kiffin called the Boyds to essentially tell them Boyd was not welcome to sign with the Vols — Clemson announced that it was removing the interim tag from Swinney. The former position coach had led the Tigers to a 4-2 finish to the season since Bowden had been fired, including a 31-14 win over arch-rival South Carolina. Clemson athletic director Don Phillips had conducted a national coaching search, but the sterling win over South Carolina had sealed it: he wanted Swinney.
Some Clemson fans were infuriated. Swinney had never been more than a position coach. How could he lead this program to national prominence?
Swinney didn’t pay much attention to the fans. He was busy assembling his staff. One of his calls was to former Clemson tight end Danny Pearman, who had led Clemson to two ACC titles as a player in the 1980s, and was currently coaching the tight ends at Maryland.
Pearman agreed to join Swinney’s staff at his alma mater. Days later, he was on the phone with Bill Dee — the head coach at Phoebus High School. Pearman had spent sometime on Frank Beamen’s staff at Virginia Tech in the early 2000s. And although Hampton was on the other side of the state, a four-hour drive from Blacksburg, Pearman had developed a friendship with Dee while recruiting the Old Dominion.
Pearman’s request to Dee was simple: Could he make a pitch at Dee’s quarterback, Tajh Boyd? Clemson had a brand-new coach, and needed a quarterback.
Before Boyd left for the U.S. Army All-American game — where he would be named the MVP after tossing three touchdown passes — Swinney was standing in his living room. He explained to the Boyds that he might be little-known as a coach, but he was ready to put Clemson football on the map. And he needed a quarterback. He was carrying a poster, depicting Boyd as a Heisman Trophy winner. He asked Boyd to buy in to his dream. He asked Boyd to go “all-in,” which had quickly become a mantra around the Swinney-led Tiger football program.
Boyd was initially cool to the idea of playing to Clemson. Clemson wasn’t even on his radar. But in January, when he finally had his knee surgery behind him and things had quieted down, he and his family visited Clemson.
He was hooked.
Dabo Swinney’s first full season as Clemson’s coach debuted a bit auspiciously. The Tigers got off to a 2-3 start. They defeated Boston College, but lost to Maryland, along with Georgia Tech and TCU. They bounced back to win six in a row, including an overtime win at No. 10 Miami, but lost their final two games of the regular season, including a 34-17 setback to rival South Carolina.
Tajh Boyd redshirted that season, recovering from his ACL surgery.
As a freshman in 2010, Boyd was a backup to Kyle Parker. He played sparingly that season, completing 33 of 63 passes with four touchdowns and three interceptions. And Clemson struggled, barely making it to a bowl game with a 6-6 record. There was another embarrassing loss to South Carolina, 29-7, and the Tigers were defeated by South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
The Clemson fans who had been frustrated by the Swinney hire were feeling vindicated.
Boyd moved into the starting role at Clemson as a third-year sophomore in 2011. It was a magical year for the Tigers: an 8-0 start with back-to-back-to-back wins over ranked teams — No. 21 Auburn, No. 11 Florida State and No. 11 Virginia Tech. The Tigers were in the Top 10, ranked at No. 8, for the first time since that 2008 preseason, before the Alabama game that started Tommy Bowden’s demise.
The season didn’t end well. The Tigers lost three of their last four games, including another lopsided defeat at the hands of South Carolina. But they defeated No. 5 Virginia Tech in a blowout to claim the school’s first ACC championship in 20 years. It was their first 10-win season since 1990.
Clemson was back. And a large part of it was due to Tajh Boyd. He completed 60 percent of his passes that season for more than 3,800 yards and 33 touchdowns.
In Knoxville, meanwhile, Kiffin had long since bolted. After telling Boyd and Bryce Petty (another QB, who wound up at Baylor) thanks but no thanks, Kiffin had lasted just one season at Tennessee before leaving in the middle of the night — and just before National Signing Day — for Southern Cal. Under second-year coach Derek Dooley, the Vols struggled to a 5-7 season. Tyler Bray, the brash young Californian Kiffin had recruited to Knoxville, was serviceable but by no means flashy — completing 147 of 247 passes for 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Clemson was even better in 2012. The Tigers would come up short of a second consecutive ACC championship, losing to No. 4 Florida State in a September shootout. And they lost to South Carolina again, but won seven in a row, won 10 games for a second consecutive season, and defeated No. 9 LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to finish with a No. 11 national ranking.
In leading his team to a second straight 10-win season, Boyd completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns.
In Knoxville, Dooley was fired after another losing season, and Bray announced he was foregoing his senior season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft.
While Bray was announcing his intentions to skip his senior season — he was undrafted, and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent — Boyd heeded the wishes of his father and returned to Clemson for his senior season. It was another successful season for the Tigers. They again failed to win the ACC, losing to a good Florida State team, and again failed to beat rival South Carolina, but it was another 10-win season for Clemson, and they capped it with a thrilling win over No. 7 Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, finishing with an 11-2 record and a No. 8 national ranking.
Boyd finished the season with a 69 percent pass completion percentage and 3,850 yards through the air, with 34 touchdowns. Against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, Boyd completed 31 of 40 passes for 378 yards and five touchdowns. It was considered a program-changing win for the Tigers.
In Knoxville, Butch Jones had been hired to replace Dooley. The Vols used three quarterbacks that season, and all of them struggled as Tennessee again failed to make a bowl game. Justin Worley completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, with eight interceptions. Josh Dobbs completed 60 percent of his passes, but for only 695 yards and two touchdowns with six interceptions.
While Boyd was unable to guide his team to an ACC title or a win over rival South Carolina, he was able to help the Tigers to three consecutive 10-win seasons, after the school had gone without a 10-win season for two decades, and the program’s first Top 10 finish in 23 years. He completed 64 percent of his passes over the course of his career for 11,904 yards and 107 touchdowns.
More importantly: Boyd had helped set the stage for Clemson to join the nation’s elite teams. With Boyd, Clemson had gone from an afterthought in the ACC to a consistent 10-win program. And the more the Tigers won, the more recruits flocked to the program. Swinney’s first four recruiting classes averaged 13th in the nation, as ranked by Rivals.com. By 2015, Swinney had his first Top 5 recruiting class.
Enter Deshaun Watson
Among those recruits flocking to Clemson was Deshaun Watson, the nation’s top quarterback in the 2014 recruiting cycle. The future was even brighter for Clemson. Everything Tajh Boyd had done, Deshaun Watson would do better. Boyd had set ACC and school records. Watson would break them.
Watson, a 6-foot-3, 188-lb. dual-threat quarterback from Gainesville, Ga., had grown up believing he would go to Florida. He had watched what Steve Spurrier, the one-time Heisman-winning Gator quarterback, did as the coach there. He had seen what Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow had done there. He was ready to be a Gator.
Then Clemson entered the picture.
Watson played sparingly as a true freshman in 2014, and Clemson won 10 games. Most importantly, the Tigers defeated South Carolina — crushed the Gamecocks, in fact. Watson completed 14 of 19 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for two more touchdowns.
A star was born.
The next year, Watson led the Tigers to their first ACC championship since 2011, and to the College Football Playoffs. Clemson defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl before losing to Alabama in a 45-40 shootout in the national championship game.
Watson completed 68 percent of his passes that season, for 4,100 yards and 35 touchdowns. He also had 1,100 yards rushing, and 12 more touchdowns. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy as just a sophomore.
Clemson was back in the College Football Playoffs in 2016, Watson’s junior season. This time, the Tigers would win the whole shooting match, avenging their loss to Alabama the previous year. It was the program’s first national championship since 1981.
Watson, of course, was the catalyst. He completed 67 percent of his passes for nearly 4,600 yards and 41 touchdowns. He rushed for more than 600 yards and nine more touchdowns.
In just two years as a full-time starter, Watson had led the Tigers to two appearances in the College Football Playoffs and had twice been a Heisman finalist. Next to Alabama, Clemson was the biggest name in college football. The Tigers had become a national brand.
Stealing from Tennessee
In Knoxville, Butch Jones seemed to have Tennessee trending in the right direction. That 2016 season, when Clemson was beating Alabama for the national championship, ended in disappointment for the Vols, who were a preseason Top 10 team and favored to win the SEC East for the first time in a decade. But Jones and his staff had put together back-to-back Top 5 recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015, the first time that had happened at Tennessee in 20 years, when Fulmer was in the fledgling stages of his 16-year career.
The 2016 signing class had been down a bit. The Vols were ranked 15th in the nation, according to Rivals.com. That was okay, though, because it was never about the 2016 recruiting cycle in Knoxville. It was 2017 that was circled on the calendar around the UT football complex. Jones had built his recruiting prowess around legacy recruits like Nigel Warrior and Todd Kelly Jr., and around in-state recruits like Josh Malone and Jalen Hurd. The 2017 recruiting cycle featured some of both.
Amari Rodgers was a 5-foot-9, 197-lb. wide receiver from Knoxville Catholic. He grew up practically in the shadow of Neyland Stadium, and he was Tee Martin’s son to boot. Martin had quarterbacked the Vols to a national championship in 1998.
Tee Higgins was a 6-foot-4, 176-lb. wide receiver from just down the road in Oak Ridge. He was a coveted 5-star recruit, ranked by Rivals.com as the nation’s No. 2 wide receiver, and No. 15 prospect overall.
It was rare for the Knoxville area to produce Under Armor All-Americans. In 2017, the region produced two in one year.
And Tennessee got neither of them.
Higgins had committed to Tennessee at one point. But he wound up at Clemson. Swinney just made an impact on the Higgins family. His mom, Lady Stewart, later told the Knoxville News Sentinel that when Butch Jones came to watch her son play basketball, “he had two state troopers and they had a place for Butch to sit that was roped off.” When Swinney came for a visit, she said, “He said: ‘I’m going to sit with you.’ I said: ‘Are you sure? I have this spot that I’ve sat in for four years. Are you sure you don’t need security?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t need that.’ Dabo came in the top of the arena…walked over to Section J and he and (assistant Jeff Scott) squished in with us, just like a normal person.”
Said Stewart: “He’s not looking for all that attention. He handles it well. He didn’t think he was better than anybody. He didn’t need security. He was just a fan that night.”
She didn’t mention Jones when she said that. She didn’t need to.
Higgins had already committed to Clemson by that point. After decommitting from Tennessee in February 2016, he had announced his decision with a July 4 fireworks show that was posted to Bleacher Report, months before Clemson won the national championship.
Just days before Higgins announced that he was decommitting from Tennessee, Rodgers announced in a Periscope video that he was committing to Clemson, choosing the Tigers over his dad’s USC team, the Vols, and others. No one has said that Rodgers’ commitment to Clemson influenced Higgins’ decision to decommit from Tennessee and later commit to the Tigers. But some things are clear even without being voiced.
As much as anything else, losing Higgins and Rodgers from right under his nose spelled impending doom for Jones. The natives around East Tennessee were already becoming anxious. The Vols had squandered their best opportunity in a decade to win the SEC East — had even lost to Vanderbilt. To follow that up with a disappointing recruiting cycle was like insult to injury. Jones would be fired nine months later.
Clemson gets another Vol quarterback
Clemson made it back to the College Football Playoffs in 2017, the Tigers’ first year without Deshaun Watson, who had foregone his senior season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. They lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to come up one game short of a third consecutive appearance in the national championship game.
Quarterbacking the Tigers was Kelly Bryant, who completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,800 yards and 13 touchdowns while also rushing for 665 yards and 11 touchdowns. It was a solid debut for the junior quarterback, who had bided his time behind Watson. But Kelly Bryant was no Deshaun Watson. He was no Tajh Boyd, either. And, very soon, he wouldn’t be a Clemson Tiger.
Trevor Lawrence, a 6-foot-6, 208-lb. quarterback from Cartersville, Ga., was putting the finishing touches on a sterling high school career in 2017. Over the course of his four-year career, he completed 63 percent of his passes for 13,900 yards and 161 touchdowns. He had a four-year QB rating of 131.3.
There was a time when he thought he was going to be a Vol. His home was in Georgia but he had been born in Knoxville and had grown up in upper East Tennessee. His family had East Tennessee ties. He had grown up a Tennessee fan. He wore No. 16 because that’s the number Peyton Manning wore in college. He even listed Tennessee as his early favorite, after putting up big numbers as a freshman.
No one knows exactly what happened with Tennessee and Trevor Lawrence. Years earlier, Lane Kiffin had flat-out told Tajh Boyd he didn’t fit Tennessee’s system. Depending on who you believe, Butch Jones told Trevor Lawrence the same thing.
Nobody associated with Lawrence has said that. But they have said that Tennessee simply didn’t pursue Lawrence that closely. Oh, they offered him. But it seems that Jones had his eye on another quarterback prospect from Georgia: Emory Jones.
Lawrence was a 5-star prospect, the nation’s No. 1 quarterback in anybody’s book. Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell called him the best quarterback prospect ever. But he was a pro-style quarterback. Jones was looking for another Joshua Dobbs, the scrambling, nimble quarterback who had led the Vols to their greatest successes of the Jones coaching era.
Jones saw that potential in Emory Jones, a 6-4, 179-lb. dual-threat quarterback from Franklin, Ga. He was the nation’s No. 6 quarterback, according to Rivals. And Tennessee was his leader.
Emory Jones almost committed to Tennessee when he visited for the Vols’ spring game in 2016. Later, he had a date picked out to commit to Tennessee.
No wonder Butch Jones didn’t seriously pursue Lawrence. He had his elite QB in Emory Jones.
Then Ohio State entered the game. Once the Buckeyes offered Jones a scholarship, he called Ohio State his “dream school,” and eventually committed to Urban Meyer in July. (Ohio State would eventually take a commitment from another quarterback, Matthew Baldwin, when Jones refused to shut down his recruitment after a visit to Columbus in October 2017. He decommitted from Ohio State in December 2017 and signed with Florida.)
Once Butch Jones lost Emory Jones, he cranked up the pressure on Lawrence. By that time, Lawrence was a junior in high school. Clemson wanted him bad, and made that known. It was too late for Tennessee.
“He loved the Vols, they were just really late on the recruiting game for him,” a family member said. “He had been recruited since his freshman year and they showed up like his junior year.”
The way the dominoes fall
When Clemson demolished Alabama on Jan. 7 to claim its second national championship in three seasons, three of the Tigers’ top four playmakers were from East Tennessee.
Lawrence was named the game’s most valuable player after completing 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns (he was also named the MVP of the Sugar Bowl after Clemson’s 30-3 rout of Notre Dame). Higgins and Rodgers teamed up for five catches for 111 yards. Higgins had a five-yard touchdown reception. The two had teamed up for 10 catches in the semifinal win over Notre Dame.
For Tennessee fans, the national championship game was a bitter reminder of what might have been.
But to truly understand the way the dominos have fallen, you have to go back to the beginning: to 2008, when Tennessee and Clemson were both struggling. The Vols went after Lane Kiffin, whose first move was to tell Tajh Boyd he needed to reconsider his commitment. The Tigers promoted Dabo Swinney, whose first move was to go after Tajh Boyd.
At the time, Tennessee fans were enamored with Kiffin. Clemson fans weren’t happy with their own administration for promoting a lifelong position coach with no head coaching experience and no coordinator experience. Ten years later, Tennessee fans would gladly switch places with Clemson fans. The Tigers have been to the playoffs four consecutive years, winning two national championships. The Vols are still wandering in the wilderness.
For Tennessee, the question isn’t so much what might’ve immediately been in Knoxville if Kiffin hadn’t told Boyd he wasn’t welcome. Kiffin landed Tyler Bray. And while Bray wasn’t Boyd, he had a respectable career — one that was good enough to land him on an NFL roster.
No, the question is what might’ve been longer-term. If Dabo Swinney doesn’t land Tajh Boyd, does the Clemson turn-around even happen? Swinney has said, looking back, that his first recruiting class in 2009 was critical to the way everything turned out. Boyd was the cornerstone of that class. His play at quarterback helped Clemson take a step forward, and positioned the Tigers for the ultimate step, to dynasty status.
Moreover, Boyd hosted a young college prospect named Deshaun Watson, who would slip into Boyd’s shoes and take Clemson to that dynasty status. If not for Boyd, there’s a strong chance that Watson would have wound up at Florida, never considering Clemson.
And, of course, if not for Clemson’s rise to the top under the play of Boyd and Watson, there’s a good chance that Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers would be wearing a different shade of orange today — even if Butch Jones did need a couple of state troopers to escort him into the gymnasium that night in Oak Ridge.
To top it all off, Butch Jones’ recruiting missteps continued when he overlooked Lawrence for Emory Jones, believing Jones to be a better fit for the offense that Butch Jones once called “infallible.” Lawrence wound up at Clemson, leading the Tigers to the national championship game and being named the game’s MVP as a true freshman.
Today, Dabo Swinney is recognized as one of the top football coaches in America. Only Alabama’s Nick Saban can lay greater claim to being the best in the profession. And, make no mistake, Swinney is every bit as good as his success would indicate.
But how much of what Swinney and Clemson have become is due to a series of missteps by Tennessee that date back a decade? As it turns out, quite a bit.
And as the dominoes continue to fall, Clemson fans celebrate their successes. Tennessee fans wonder what might have been.