CHARLOTTE — At most places, a 10-win season with a quality bowl victory to close the campaign is cause for celebration.

Clemson isn’t most places. Such is the nature of the beast Dabo Swinney has built in Tigertown since taking over for Tommy Bowden in the middle of the 2008 regular season.

Success often begets more success, but it also creates an at-times uncontrollable avalanche of expectations. No one understands this better than Swinney. College football rewards winners with great riches, but winning comes with intense demands, and it takes a unique invidual to navigate the ups and downs of that journey.

Dabo Swinney is such a unique individual.

And while most the players on Clemson’s roster aren’t old enough to vividly remember a time when Clemson wasn’t a nationally relevant program or Swinney wasn’t a household name and one of the sport’s most respected head coaches, Swinney remembers everything.

In fact, Swinney said his journey and methodical march to making Clemson a national powerhouse helps him relate to his 3rd-year quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei.

That’s why Swinney spent so much time talking process and quarterback Wednesday in Charlotte. Sure, when Swinney speaks, the college football world listens. Swinney could have spent all afternoon Wednesday talking about the impact of NIL, realignment and the transfer portal, and it would have made headlines.

But Swinney wanted to talk about Uiagalelei instead.

It was Uiagalelei, the 5-star, No. 1 quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class, after all, who took the brunt of the blame for Clemson’s disappointing (by Dabo Clemson standards) 10-3 2021 campaign, which saw the Tigers’ streak of ACC titles and NCAA-leading consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl invite streak end at 6.

Uiagalelei shined spelling an injured Trevor Lawrence as a freshman in 2020, but took a significant statistical step backward in his first year as the full-time starter in 2021. His completion percentage dropped 10 points, he threw 10 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns, and he finished in the bottom half of the ACC in passing efficiency, success rate, and efficiency on throws of 10 yards or more, per Stats Solutions.

At least in part due to Uiagalelei’s struggles, the Tigers finished the season ranked 75th in offensive success rate, and managed to squander a defense that finished 8th nationally in total defense, 3rd in yards allowed per play and 3rd in SP+ defensive efficiency. 

The result was Uiagalelei finding himself the object of Clemson fan and message board ire, with many threads and local media pieces wondering if Uiagalelei should lose his starting position to Cade Klubnik, the latest 5-star phenom. While Uiagalelei admitted Wednesday that Klubnik has pushed him to be better, Swinney put the issue to rest in April, insisting that Uiagalelei would start in 2022. Swinney’s exclamation point on that sentiment? Bringing Uiagalelei to ACC Media Days.

“(Uiagalelei) has earned the right to be here,” Swinney said Wednesday. “I don’t need fans or message boards to tell me who DJ Uiagalelei is. You get a lot of praise when you are good and you get a lot of criticism when you struggle. That comes with the territory of being the quarterback at Clemson,” Swinney said. Then he grinned.

“But I know all about the criticism and the message boards. When I was a sophomore — not a sophomore, Dabo — when I was a 2nd-year head coach at Clemson, I won 6 games,” Swinney remembered. “Plenty of message board posts went up where they wanted me gone. I wasn’t ready to be a head coach, this and that. You try to ignore it but you can’t avoid it, you know?

“The next year, we won 10 games at Clemson for the first time in 20 years and won an ACC championship. The next season we won 11 games. Now if I win 10 games, they want me fired or they wonder if Clemson is slipping. It comes with success, and DJ understands that.”

The other thing Swinney understood? It isn’t just about the quarterback.

“The one thing we did, while we had Tajh Boyd and then especailly with Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, we recruited hard. We built really good teams around them,” Swinney said. “Young quarterbacks make mistakes. Deshaun Watson made mistakes. Trevor Lawrence made plenty of mistakes. But we were so much better around them than we were for DJ last year. So every mistake that DJ made was magnified.”

This year, Swinney becomes visibly excited when he talks about the cast around Uiagalelei and the way that will help his quarterback grow, just as Swinney grew as a head coach.

“It starts with Will Shipley, of course, but we return almost 90% of the yards we gained last year,” Swinney said. “We have a ton of weapons for (offensive coordinator) Brandon Streeter to work with and we should be much better up front. DJ has some scar tissue. He’s got some shrapnel, some battle wounds. But he’s  an unbelievable leader, and he’s going to be better for it, and Clemson is going to be better for it, believe that.”

Swinney clearly believes, which is why Uiagalelei was here, slimmed down by nearly 40 pounds, craving ice cream he can’t eat, (“I’m a big ice cream sundae guy,” Uiagalelei admitted), and using meditation techniques and the promise of a fully-healed knee to motivate him for the season ahead.

“I am in the best shape of my life. I won’t get outworked, that’s for sure. Last year is behind me and behind us. We can’t wait to get started,” Uiagalelei said.

Neither can Dabo.