Ahead of CFP rematch, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney defends decision to rank Ohio State No. 11

Sam Cooper
·5-min read

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney caused quite a stir — especially in the state of Ohio — when he put Ohio State at No. 11 in his final ballot for the USA Today Coaches Poll.

Swinney was one of the 61 FBS head coaches who participated in the weekly ballot this season. The top five of the final Coaches Poll mirrored the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 5 Texas A&M.

Swinney, though, curiously had the 6-0 Buckeyes outside of his top 10. Naturally, that ranking did not sit well with the OSU faithful back in Columbus and has become a talking point ahead of the Clemson-Ohio State matchup in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Friday night in the Sugar Bowl.

Swinney spoke with reporters on Monday and explained his thought process. He also stood by the ranking, saying he did not rank any teams that played fewer than nine games in his top 10.

“There’s no question Ohio State is good enough to beat us. They’re good enough to beat anybody of these four. They’re good enough to be the national champion. That’s not a question at all. I didn’t rank anybody who didn’t play nine games or more in the top 10. Nobody. And then after that, I said anybody who played at all I’ll rank that group. That’s why they were 11. I have all the respect in the world for Ohio State,” Swinney said.

Swinney said the ranking wasn’t about Ohio State itself and there was “nothing personal at all” about it. He just doesn’t “think it’s right” that OSU gets the chance to compete for a national title when it played significantly fewer games than teams like Texas A&M (8-1), Florida (8-3) and Oklahoma (8-2).

“You can change the name. You can say any other name. If Southern Cal had been 6-0, I wouldn't have had them in there. No disrespect,” Swinney said. “People can perceive and take things any way they want. But for me, every year I take it seriously, especially this year. I just don’t think it’s right. It’s not that they’re not good enough. I just don’t think it’s right that three teams have to play 13 games to be the champion and one team has to play eight. If people have a problem with that, I don’t really care. It’s my poll and it has zero to do with Ohio State.”

Swinney also brought up his end-of-season poll in 2017 when he ranked Ohio State at No. 4 ahead of Alabama, his alma mater. Ohio State won the Big Ten that season but finished at No. 5, a spot behind Alabama, a team that lost to Auburn and was left out of the SEC title game. Alabama ended up winning the national championship that season.

“I left Alabama out and guess who was mad at me then? Alabama people. They were good enough to win it, and it wasn’t a matter of whether Alabama was good enough to win it — they won it. I just felt like Ohio State deserved it,” Swinney said. “I felt like they played more games, they were the Big Ten champ. To me that mattered. That’s why I put Ohio State ahead of Alabama that year. I played at Alabama, I went to Alabama. So I’m an equal-opportunity guy, I guess.”

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks with uarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) before the start of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks with uarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) before the start of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Swinney knew vote would go public, but ‘right is right’

Swinney knew the vote would end up in the public and be so-called bulletin board material for the Buckeyes. Still, he went ahead with the way he felt about the situation. To Swinney, the games matter. He said he “wasn’t going to be politically correct and try to appease people.”

“To me, right is right. It’s not always easy to do the right thing. I absolutely knew that I would be the poster child for whatever. I can probably run for governor in Michigan. I might have a good chance. Probably not very popular in Ohio,” Swinney said.

“I don’t live my life that way. I’m not going to say, ‘well, let me put them here and do something that I absolutely do not believe in.’ Again, it’s not that they’re not good enough. They could beat us by two touchdowns. They’re plenty good enough to beat us. They’re good enough to win it all. I just had a problem with the fact that three teams got to play 13 games and one has to play eight.”

Swinney: ‘We have to play better than last year’

Nonetheless, Swinney’s ranking and subsequent comments have added fuel to the fire on Ohio State’s side. In last season’s CFP semifinal, Ohio State jumped out to a 16-0 lead but Clemson clawed back and ended up winning 29-23. The Tigers took the lead on a Trevor Lawrence touchdown pass to Travis Etienne with 1:49 remaining. Clemson then sealed the victory when Nolan Turner picked off a Justin Fields pass in the end zone with 37 seconds to go.

Swinney said his team didn’t play as well as it could have against the Buckeyes last year.

“We had an unbelievable game with Ohio State last year. That was about as good a game as a playoff game as you could be a part of,” Swinney said.

“I thought we did not play well in the game last year. They did a great job. I didn't think we played great at wideout. The best thing we did is take care of the ball. That was the difference in the game. We have to play better than last year. That’s for sure.”

Coming off a blowout over Notre Dame in the ACC title game, Swinney feels like the Tigers are starting to really hit their stride.

“We’re starting to play our best football. I still think our best football is still in front of us,” Swinney said.

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