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Clemson's No. 1 recruiting class sets the table for a modern football dynasty

The Clemson football program sits on the cusp of its first top-ranked recruiting class, the latest sign that a program on a 28-game winning streak could be transitioning toward becoming a dynasty.  

The Tigers are holding on to the top spot on National Signing Day on Wednesday. Clemson is ranked No. 1 overall for the 2020 class, according to Rivals.com, and has secured commitments from the country’s top two players, three of the top 10 and have at least six five-star pledges.

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After winning two of the past three national titles and taking over as the most dominant program in the sport, the fact that Clemson has never assembled the country’s top recruiting class showcases that the program can still grow. “We’ve been pretty successful not having the best recruiting class,” Tigers athletic director Dan Radakovich told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday.  

Clemson is making its fifth consecutive College Football Playoff appearance and faces perhaps the biggest challenge of its two-year undefeated run. The No. 3 Tigers face No. 2 Ohio State in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, and a victory means a date with either heavily favored No. 1 LSU or No. 4 Oklahoma.

Two more wins will leave Clemson chasing some historical giants for positioning in the sport’s rarest air. Clemson’s run is already among the 20 best streaks in the history of the sport.

If they become the first back-to-back title winner in the CFP era, the Tigers will have a 30-game win streak and be honing in on two modern programs from this generation who’ve had the longest runs of undefeated dominance.

With two more victories this season, Clemson can catch up to USC’s (2003-05) and Miami’s 34-game win streak (2000-2002). (The USC streak isn’t counted officially by the NCAA because of violations.)

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates with players after an NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Nov. 30. (AP)

Clemson’s only difficult non-league games next season come at Notre Dame and at home against South Carolina, both of which are in November. The return of Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and the arrival of this historic recruiting class will likely position Clemson as the preseason favorite in 2020 if they can win the next two games. That makes reaching 34 tangible.

There are other programs ahead of Clemson on the all-time win streak list. Oklahoma has the longest streak in college football history at 47 games from 1953-1957. Some of the programs ahead of Clemson are difficult to compare, like Yale in the late 1800s, Penn in the same era and Toledo from 1969-1971. Also, there are modern teams like Alabama that haven’t had similar consecutive-win streaks but still authored eras of dominance.

The lesson from this 2020 class is that Clemson’s recruiting is catching up to its high-end reputation. There’s no more glaring sign than the Tigers taking a commitment from five-star linebacker Trenton Simpson this weekend. Clemson hadn’t even offered Simpson until his visit, according to Rivals.com southeast recruiting analyst Woody Wommack. When they took a commitment from Simpson, the No. 26 player in the class, they informed the No. 4 player in the class, Justin Flowe, that they weren’t recruiting him anymore.

“The fact that they’re in position to pick and choose between five stars the week before signing day shows what kind of level they’re operating at,” Wommack said in a phone interview.

Clemson’s two highest-ranked players in the class highlight the evolution of the program. The No. 1 overall player in the country, massive defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, committed from Damascus, Maryland. The No. 2 overall player, cannon-armed quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, comes from Southern California.

That type of national reach for elite players wasn’t there in the early part of Clemson’s run, and those could end up the type of prospects that help keep Clemson operating on this higher plane.

“I think it’s brand recognition,” Radakovich said. “The recruits, assuming they are 17 and 18, only remember Clemson winning 10 or more games from when they started to watch college football. They’ll seen us play in the College Football Playoff five times, that’s great brand recognition.”

Clemson has won 28 straight games heading into the College Football Playoff, which already has it in elite company historically. (Graphic via NCAA.org)

The brand’s poster child is Deshaun Watson, who led Clemson to the first CFP title back in 2017 and has emerged as a star for the Houston Texans. Trevor Lawrence came next, leading the Tigers to the title as a true freshman the next season. But the Tigers have also had 24 players drafted into the NFL the past four seasons, including six first-round picks.

Coach Dabo Swinney deserves credit for creating the Fun House antidote to Nick Saban’s clinical machine at Alabama. Swinney had an elite facility built, complete with a slide and a mini-golf course, starting the trend of head coaches who focus almost solely on recruiting and culture instead of third-and-6 blitz packages.

That’s helped Clemson remain attractive. A few years back, Wommack recalls mentioning a receiver from Louisiana to a Clemson assistant. The assistant remarked there were a lot of states and high-end programs he’d have to fly over to get to Clemson, which is located in South Carolina. But all those titles and picks have changed that.

“They’d never have that mentality now,” Wommack said. “There’s no distance, it’s wherever we want to go. Their name and brand opens the door with any kid in any city anywhere in the country.”

The Tigers are already chasing the heyday of The U at Miami in the early 2000s and the Pete Carroll juggernaut that followed at USC. Will this Clemson class be the foundation that allows them to reset the modern standard? With two more wins this season, the Tigers could be changing the paradigm of how we view a modern football dynasty.

And they’ve loaded up with the recruits to chase down history from behind.

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