ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dabo Swinney knows full well what everyone outside Clemson is saying about his program, and really, they can talk all they want about whether the end is near now that the Tigers have missed the College Football Playoff for the first time in seven years.
Here is what Swinney will tell you. On Oct. 1, he walked into a team meeting with a list. His team's record was 2-2. Not one player looking back at him had ever started their Clemson careers with two losses in September.
On his list, Swinney had more than 30 teams written down, all with two losses. He told his players, "We're going to find out a lot about who we are over the next two months."
Only two teams on that list finished the regular season with nine wins: Clemson and Utah. So, yes, it was not the season Clemson is used to having. But no, Swinney is not disappointed in his players, nor is he ready to concede that his program has taken a step back.
Because when the Cheez-It Bowl kicks off Wednesday night (5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN app), with Clemson (9-3) facing Iowa State (7-5), the Tigers will be going for an 11th straight 10-win season. Only two teams have ever reached double-digit wins in 11 straight seasons: Florida State (14 from 1987 to 2000) and Alabama (14 from 2008 to 2021).
"You are sitting there at 2-2 in September with a lot of disappointment, a lot of negativity, a lot of noise," Swinney told ESPN. "And you really saw the foundation of our program shine and win the day. I'm just really proud of how it's come together and how these guys have stayed together and gotten better and better."
Still, detractors will say Swinney is just trying to put a spin on a season that started with a No. 3 preseason ranking but ends without a championship for the first time since 2014. The offense looked decidedly un-Clemson-like for long stretches, starting with quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who struggled at times to find any rhythm, throwing just nine touchdown passes with nine interceptions this season.
But some of that could be attributed to major injuries at running back and receiver. Clemson was without seven scholarship receivers by the final week of the season.
"Every young player I've ever had, from Deshaun [Watson], Trevor [Lawrence], they all make mistakes, but we were much better around them and it kind of covered those things up," Swinney said. "We weren't near as good as we needed to be around D.J. early, and so it made his mistakes magnified. But it has sped all those other things up that I think is really going to pay off for him as he goes through his career."
The offense was not the only part of the team that was dissected this season. Swinney took criticism for not utilizing the transfer portal to help shore up several areas that lacked depth, starting with the offensive line.
"I wouldn't do anything differently," Swinney said when asked about transfers in October. "[To add a transfer] means I wouldn't have taken one of the kids we have here. You can only sign so many players."
More criticism followed after both offensive coordinator Tony Elliott (Virginia) and defensive coordinator Brent Venables (Oklahoma) left for head coaching opportunities in recent weeks. Rather than a wholesale shift in philosophy, Swinney promoted from within. Offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter and co-defensive coordinators Wes Goodwin and Mickey Conn will make their debuts in their new positions on Wednesday.
Swinney has gone to great lengths to defend his program and his way of doing things, and firmly believes the adversity his players faced this season will benefit them in the long run.
"I think some things have been reset with these guys," Swinney said. "You win so much, sometimes you don't really appreciate that.
"Especially the seniors, what type of adversity have they had? You lose a playoff game. That's not adversity. It was six straight championships, a bunch of big wins along the way, a rhythm of: 'This is what we do.' It's been cool to connect with them in a different way because of some of the challenges we had, especially early, and then to see the right stuff show up. It's what we say: 'It either shines you up or grinds you up.'"
As for the questions about whether this is a turning point for Clemson's dominance, Swinney shrugs all that off and uses Alabama as an example. Clemson beat Alabama for the 2018 national championship, and in 2019, the Crimson Tide failed to make the playoff, instead playing Michigan in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl.
"I remember when that was going on," Swinney said. "They all said, 'They're done.' No, no. It's just every year's a new challenge. They come back the next year and win the national championship because they're a good program. That's who we are. We're a good program. We've never won the ACC championship every year we've been here. We've won it seven out of the last 11 years. I wish I could say we won 11, but those years we didn't, we just went back to work. We'll continue to be one of those teams that's in the hunt because we have a great program, and that's very rooted and established."
For proof, Swinney can point to his seniors and draft-eligible players. Despite not making the playoff, nobody opted out of the bowl game. Swinney mentions tight end Davis Allen, who recently lost his grandfather, but insisted on returning to Orlando to be able to play in the game.
"I think it's the culture of this team," sixth-year linebacker James Skalski said during a pre-bowl news conference. "We have been in the playoffs and bigger stages, but to us, we get to go play a game again. We all just love playing ball. We love being together, so it wasn't even opt-out, like, what? That's not a thing."
Neither was missing the playoff. Clemson is hoping to avoid making that "a thing" in the years to come.