“These guys have changed Clemson forever,” Dabo Swinney said of his senior players late Monday night, and for once, the loquacious Clemson football coach might have omitted something. His seniors and his team also did the improbable work of rearranging the American football landscape, of making Clemson a foremost attraction.
For at least August 2016, when our lunatic college football nation and its deranged expectations rev up again, those eyes must look to Clemson first, even as they look yet again to the kingdom of Tuscaloosa, and to the three-team Michigan-Ohio corridor, and to Palo Alto, Calif., with the great Christian McCaffrey taking handoffs and who knows what else from a new quarterback. They can look to Norman, Okla., Fort Worth, maybe Baton Rouge if the offense could just diversify.
First, though, there’s Upstate South Carolina, with the dazzling returning quarterback (Deshaun Watson), the human blast furnace of a coach (Swinney), and the love.
Through the mastery that got it to 14-0 and to a winning 45-40 loss in a churning national-title game against Alabama, Clemson resonated love. For one thing, it had a center (Jay Guillermo) who would punctuate practices and games by telling teammates and coaches, “I love you.” For another, when it all ended, as a heartbroken Swinney finished his remarks and left the dais to Watson and guard Eric Mac Lain, he stopped by, leaned over behind Watson and said, “Love you.”
“Love you, too,” Watson replied.
If that would seem a sacrilege in football in the 19th and 20th centuries, let’s just say those allegedly manly eras lacked the guts for such truths.
Look, everyone misguided enough to be in the know about this sport has long since known Clemson was above average. The 42-11 record from 2011 through 2014 showed that, as did bowl wins over Louisiana State, Oklahoma and especially Ohio State. Yet on Monday night, in a sport of entrenched and unhelpful aristocrats, in the College Football Playoff national championship game, Clemson finished the hard work of redefinition.
The team that reached a new level and played Alabama was notably unafraid of all of it. It looked like it felt sure it belonged, so it did. It treated Alabama’s bloodcurdling defense, that unkind yielder of 256 yards per game, second in the country, and 13.4 points per game, first in the country, to 550 harrowing yards and 40 points. Even in his championship mirth, Alabama Coach Nick Saban seemed to have one moment when he resorted to his perfectionism, lamented the difficulty of getting players amped for a second playoff game, used his defensive mind and said almost somberly, “So they got 40 points.”
Said the senior guard Mac Lain of his teammates, “Really looking forward to watching them as their careers unfold, and Clemson is going to be very special.”
Said Swinney: “Last year’s national champion was 14-1. This year’s national champion is 14-1. We stand toe-to-toe with everybody in the country. This program doesn’t take a back seat to anybody. We can play with anybody. We can beat anybody, and that’s a fact.”
Swinney has willed it so in his seven-plus seasons as head coach, even for a program that won a national championship in 1981 and so knows about residing amid expectations. Now he and Clemson have elbowed, wriggled and scrambled to the forefront, where they’ll be irresistible largely because of Watson.
With his 405 passing yards, his 73 rushing yards (unfairly reduced by sacks in the college statistical system), and his capacity to run from apparent thickets to first downs, Watson drew comparisons to Vince Young. That Texas quarterback took the title game 10 years ago and ran and passed until it resembled a backyard game in which one kid is larger than all the others. A more apt comparison for Watson might be Michael Vick, who became the prevailing memory of the title game 16 years ago even though he and Virginia Tech did not win. Vick took a perfectly good Florida State defense and drove it mad with his rare skills.
Watson drove Saban mad also, Saban’s headphones paying the price in their brisk trip down to the turf halfway through the third quarter. Watson had just scrambled 16 yards and out of bounds for a first down on a second and 15. It would lead to a touchdown that would give Clemson its final lead of the season, 24-21, and would supply the urgency that would fuel Saban’s call for an onside kick with the score tied at 24.
Ten years from now, that kick will prevail in memory, as should Watson. Seven months from now, Watson might ride his own diligence to even more improvement: After a long postgame moment with Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Watson’s new friend from their time together in New York before the Heisman Trophy announcement, Watson said, “We’re going to try to link up after the offseason and learn from him and just really build that relationship.”
Yet as Watson went along toward that sideline near Saban and those unlucky headphones, he looked almost breezy and certainly masterful. Anybody with football eyes couldn’t wait to see more of him and of Clemson, whose founder, Thomas Green Clemson (1807-1888), never could have imagined this kind of renown.