While the Clemson football team has dominated most of its ACC competition under Dabo Swinney, there’s still one team he hasn’t been able to beat away from home.
In four trips to Florida State as Clemson’s head coach, Swinney is 0-4.
Swinney’s squad is picked to win this year’s game in Tallahassee. The Tigers are 7-0, and a favorite to make it back to the College Football Playoff, while the Seminoles have lost twice, including a 43-point loss at Louisville.
Winning at Florida State won’t come easily if history is any indication.
In Clemson’s last 12 games at Doak Campbell Stadium, the Tigers have won just once.
Swinney’s Tigers have had their chances to earn road wins at Florida State, but they haven’t been able to finish.
"We’ve done about everything you can do but win," Swinney said.
The door was open for Clemson to beat a No. 1-ranked Florida State team in 2014 when the Seminoles’ reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston, was suspended because of off-field behavior.
With less than two minutes to play in regulation and the game tied, Clemson was inside Florida State’s red zone – and in position for a go-ahead score – until the Seminoles recovered a fumble by Tigers running back C.J. Davidson. A 4th-and-1 rushing attempt by Adam Choice in overtime came up short, and Florida State won, 24-17.
"I thought we were the better team, and the better team didn’t win," Swinney said.
"It was a very disappointing day ... we had every opportunity to win the game, and we didn’t."
Swinney says Florida State was the better team in 2012, when the Tigers had a 28-14 lead in the third quarter but gave up 35 second-half points and lost, 49-37.
"Just couldn’t hold onto it, couldn’t finish it, in the fourth quarter when we needed to," Swinney said.
Clemson’s 2010 game at Doak appeared headed for overtime until Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins hit a 55-yard field goal as time expired to down the Tigers, 16-13. Clemson never trailed in that game until a fourth-quarter touchdown drive by Florida State, which came after Tigers quarterback Kyle Parker was intercepted in the end zone by Seminoles cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
"We led the whole game and had some miscues," Swinney said. "That was a tough one."
In 2008, Clemson was just 4-4 and Swinney was in just his third game as interim coach when it went to Florida State. The Tigers lost, 41-27, but never trailed by more than seven points until the fourth quarter.
Clemson’s most recent win in Tallahassee came 10 years ago, on Sept. 16, 2006, when an unranked Tigers team scored an upset over the No. 9-ranked Seminoles.
With less than a minute to play and the game tied 20-20, Clemson running back James Davis ran by multiple defenders for a 47-yard gain before being tripped up at the 4-yard line. Three plays later, Davis dove into the end zone for a game-winning 1-yard touchdown.
Tommy Bowden was in his eighth full season as Clemson’s head coach, like Swinney is now, when he won that game. Although that was Bowden’s final trip to Tallahassee as Clemson’s coach, he believes that win helped the Tigers establish themselves as the ACC power they are today.
"They were the best team," Bowden said of Florida State. "If you ever want to be the best team, you have to beat the best team, so that was a step in the progress of gaining validity in the conference."
It took Bowden four games at Florida State to defeat his father, legendary former Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, on his home turf. Clemson lost 41-22 in 2004 and 48-31 in 2002. The Tigers were trounced, 54-7, in his first trip there in 2000.
That was still progress for Clemson, as the Tigers failed to score a touchdown in each of their four previous trips to Florida State. The Tigers suffered a 57-0 beatdown in 1993, their only trip to Florida State with Ken Hatfield as head coach. Tommy West’s Tigers were dominated in a 48-0 loss at FSU, in 1998, 34-3 loss in 1996 and 17-0 loss in 1994.
Clemson’s current losing streak at Florida State isn’t quite as long as its last, but Bowden believes the pieces are in place for the Tigers to win there again.
"Not only was Clemson not having success, nobody was having success against Florida State in the ACC, back when I entered the conference in (1999)," Bowden said. "Dabo and his team go in with a different level of confidence that what my team would have had."
Danny Ford led Clemson to a 34-23 win at Florida State in his only trip to Tallahassee during his final season in 1989.
The late Red Parker led Clemson to a 15-12 win at Florida State in his only trip to Tallahassee during his final season in 1976.
Those were Clemson’s only two road wins at Florida State until the Bowden Bowl win 10 years ago. Clemson suffered a 38-13 loss in its first trip to Florida State under then-coach Hootie Ingram in 1970. The two schools did not play each other annually until 1992, after Florida State joined the ACC.
Why has it been so tough for Clemson to win in Tallahassee? Tommy Bowden said there are other environments in the ACC and SEC, including Clemson Memorial Stadium, that are louder. The current coaches believe Florida State has simply been a little bit better in the recent years Clemson has played there.
"They always play well against us, no matter how they’ve played up and to that point, and then they’ve made the plays and we haven’t," said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. "We’ve had opportunities to win the last couple times that we’ve been down there, and just were not able to capitalize on them."
Clemson didn’t play Florida State during the early years of Ford’s coaching tenure, some of the most successful football seasons in school history. Clemson was a middling ACC program for most of the 1990s and 2000s, when Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles were consistently among the best teams in college football.
Coming off a national championship game appearance last year, Clemson’s football program is arguably now in the best place it has ever been. Florida State is not in position to be a championship contender this year. But the Tigers still expect winning in Tallahassee to be as tough as ever.
"They’re still Florida State," Swinney said. "They got great players and great coaches and take pride in playing at home and one of the best programs in the country, year in and year out, so it’s just a tough place to play."