How Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney looks at Orange Bowl thumping by Tennessee

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Sometimes in life, the most forgettable moments turn out to be the ones you just can’t seem to forget.

And sometimes that can be a good thing.

For Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, one such moment unfolded 11 years ago in the same Orange Bowl in which his team lost against Tennessee, 31-14, on Friday night.

On Jan. 4, 2012, Swinney’s team absorbed a 70-33 beatdown at the hands of West Virginia in one of those games in which everything that could go wrong for Clemson did and everything that could go right for West Virginia did.

“It was a pretty bad night,” Swinney said.

No question there.

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For those who dare to recall, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith passed for 401 yards and six touchdowns as Clemson suffered the most lopsided defeat in Orange Bowl history.

The result was a new perspective and a new defensive coordinator.

Both proved to be watershed moves for the program.

“My job at that moment was to make sure a bad moment didn’t make us lose sight of a great year,” said Swinney, whose team finished 10-4 that season. “The year before we won six games, so it was just another step for us.

“We were back (in the Orange Bowl) two years later and beat a great Ohio State team. So the loss to West Virginia was just a bad day in the midst of a great journey. It’s all part of it.”

A lot of water has passed under the Clemson football program’s bridge since, leaving the Tigers and their fan base awash in unprecedented success. Clemson has posted 12 consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories, eight ACC titles and two national championships.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney reacts to a missed field goal during the first half of the Orange Bowl game between the Tennessee Vols and Clemson Tigers at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.

The Tigers missed out on a berth in the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive year, capped the 2022 season with defeats in three of their final six games, and Friday night’s spanking at the hands of Tennessee turned out to be another “pretty bad night.”

So is his program slipping?

“We’re 11-3,” Swinney said. “I wish we were undefeated, but we’ve won the league seven of the last eight years and we’ve been pretty consistent. Nobody out there has higher expectations than what we have, I promise you that.”

So don’t expect Mr. Optimism to exhibit any signs of doom and gloom.

“People say what they want to say – always have, always will,” Swinney said. “Seasons come and go and every year is a new journey. We’ll learn from this and keep getting better. We’re teachers, and on January 13th we’ll have our first team meeting and the 2023 journey will be upon us.”

While Swinney provided his positive spin for the future, senior defensive end K.J. Henry offered reflection and perspective.

“We had 11 great days and three bad ones,” Henry said. “But I wouldn’t trade anything for what I was a part of this year. It’s all about the relationships. I’ve been part of a lot of great teams here and this will go down as one of them.”

Then there’s the popcorn.

“I’ll always remember all the free popcorn when we had movie nights before the game,” Henry said. “I love popcorn and I appreciate Coach Swinney for allowing that for the team.”

Free free popcorn has a way of making any bad night a pretty good one.

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney optimistic after Orange Bowl loss