Huskies Mimicking Clemson’s Ascent?
Back in the summer of 2015, we (on the HuskyFanPodcast) first noted the similarities between Clemson and Washington. A bit later on we published an analysis of head coaches, concluding that Chris Petersen and Dabo Swinney were arguably two of the five best coaches yet to win a national championship.
The similarities between the two programs are fairly striking. Both had solid histories (and at least one National Title), but historically were not regarded as being in the nationally elite club. In the Pac10/12, USC was always the 900-pound gorilla, while in the Deep South many other programs overshadowed Clemson.
Both also suffered through lengthy mostly disappointing eras following the retirement of a legendary head coach. Clemson enjoyed a strong run from the late 1970s to the early 1990s (much like Washington) but then regressed for almost 20 years. From 1992 through 2010, Clemson had only the 35th best winning percentage (58%) and failed to reach 10 wins. Surely, there is no need to revisit UW’s travails over the same time period.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Clemson’s transformation under Swinney is the biggest college football story of the past 5+ years. The heights that Clemson has reached would have been unfathomable to a Clemson fan prior to Swinney taking hold.
Just a few years ago, the term “Clemsoning” was a thing. A not at all complimentary thing. It meant the same thing to Southerners that “Coug-ing It” means to those of us in the West, essentially. And then there was the matter of the 2012 Orange Bowl. Clemson was utterly humiliated by West Virginia (!!!) in something that most resembled a snuff film.
Since the 2015 season, Clemson has won two national championships and elevated its program to a stature which few programs reach. So Swinney has engineered something rare in college football: a second or third tier program rising up to the Elite level over a period of less than a decade.
Swinney did it by creating a unique culture, making some shrewd coordinator hires, and recruiting his ass off (we’ll just ignore the possibility that PEDs and skullduggery may have also helped). None of it happened overnight, as that curb stomping in the Orange Bowl illustrates.
The fascinating thing for Washington fans is how similar the first five years of Chris Petersen’s tenure have been to Swinney’s early years as the head man at Clemson.
Through Swinney’s first seven full seasons (plus his interim gig), he had won 2 conference titles, 3 division titles and reached the national championship game. Petersen has coached for 5 seasons and has already won 2 conference titles and 3 division titles (including the 2017 tie). He has yet to reach the national championship game, but he was one step away in 2016.
By my estimation (based on data including on-field performance and recruiting), Washington is roughly 5 years behind Clemson.
All the Gory Details
Let’s look at the evidence in detail:
The 2015 season was Petersen’s second at Washington and the 2010 season was Swinney’s second full season at Clemson.
Simple Rating System (SRS) is a simple metric that rates teams based on margin of victory and strength of schedule.
“Rec Class” refers to the ranking of the recruiting class that year. The metric for that ranking is the average recruit rating from that recruiting class per the 247Sports Composite. (Note: The average is far more predictive of the quality of the recruiting class than the standard points method which rewards teams for attrition. The more attrition you have the bigger recruiting classes you need.)
The Blue Chip Ratio is the percentage of recruits from that class are 4- or 5-Star recruits. (In the modern era, no team has won the national championship without a cumulative blue chip ratio of 50% over their past four recruiting classes.)
The 4-year Recruiting Rank is the rank of the last 4 classes based on the average from the 247 composite. I total up the data for the last 4 classes and then sort it.
Blue Chips is the number of blue chip recruits on the roster and 5-stars is the number of 5-stars in that class and the parentheses is the number on the roster.
According to this data, Washington and Petersen are right where Clemson and Swinney were in 2014.
The previous years line up quite well. Clemson’s 2010 season was much like Washington’s 2015 season. Each school won its conference the next season and would go to an additional two New Years 6 bowl games over the next two seasons.
At present, the 4-year recruiting rankings are exactly the same while Washington has more blue chips at this point but that is somewhat balanced by Clemson having two more 5-stars.
Over the next two years (2015 & 2016), Clemson brought in the #11 class and then the #4 class.
If Washington gets Sav’ell Smalls, the 2020 class is going to end up in the #9-#12 range. If Washington sweeps the in-state class for 2021 (4 prospects in the top 33) and grabs one other five star, then it’s likely to have a top 5 class.
In that scenario Washington would have 5 or 6 5-stars on its 2021 roster.
And that is the key metric for Washington over the next few years: start getting five-star recruits regularly. From 2014 to 2018 Clemson went from 3 5-stars on its roster to 10!
Clemson also managed to get near the top of the mountain (reaching the national championship game in 2015) and then accelerate its recruiting.
Washington is now in great position to accelerate its recruiting because of Petersen’s track record and the in-state talent.
But getting Smalls and locking down the in-state riches in the 2021 class is not enough. Petersen and Washington have to be brutally efficient in recruiting over the next few years to ensure that they have the necessary talent to compete for national championships.
Don’t think it can be done?
Look at what Clemson did.
Washington is on the same path.
And Washington has done it before. Per SRS, the 1991 national champion Washington Huskies were the second best team of the past 40 years. If not for a bizarre home loss to UCLA in 1990, Washington would have been going for a 3-peat in 1992.