Clearly, the Clemson football program had come to think of itself in a way it did not think of itself through the 1990s and 2000s, right up until the time in 2008 that Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips did something kooky and vaulted a receivers coach past the coordinators and into the head-coaching position. That’s why it sounded like more than psychobabble late Monday night when that 11-season head coach, Dabo Swinney, said, “I think that we [human beings] put limitations on our own self by how we think.” It rang as wisdom Tuesday morning when he said, “You have to win in your mind first.”
When Swinney kept referring to “little old Clemson,” he referred maybe to the enrollment (18,599 undergraduate) but absolutely to the usual big arc of college football history. Through the force of a rare personality at the helm, Clemson has renovated the way it thinks about itself.
Clemson, which went 120-85 (.585) from 1992 through 2008, has grown comfortable alongside royalty. It has won two of the last three national championships and dominated the second of the two in the Bay Area where once roamed the late former Clemson receiver Dwight Clark, whose birthday began just as a soaring Clemson Monday turned into a giddy Clemson Tuesday.
In going 87-11 since 2012 and 55-4 since 2015, Clemson has won twice against Notre Dame (once by annihilation), twice against Ohio State (once by annihilation), twice against Alabama (once by annihilation) and twice against Oklahoma (once by annihilation and once by mere romp). It has just won a College Football Playoff in which it outscored Notre Dame and Alabama by 74-19. In a 149-year-old sport noted for its kingdoms, Clemson has become the first program since Miami in the 1980s to stick its nose persistently where others thought it didn’t belong. Clemson didn’t have a 10-win season between 1990 and 2010; now, it’s had eight in a row. Clemson didn’t have an ACC title between 1991 and 2001; now, it’s had five since 2011 and four in a row.
Disclaimer: It still did not run around last week thinking it would beat Alabama by four touchdowns.
“Oh, that would probably be crazy confidence,” Swinney said Tuesday morning, before explaining, “It was our night, and we got control of the game . . . Sometimes, when you get momentum rolling like we were able to get it and just the energy all channeled in the right direction, it can be kind of insurmountable, and that’s what happened last night. I mean, it was just kind of an overwhelming collective effort by our group.”
From there, though, he did get into explaining the basis of four-touchdowns confidence: “First and foremost, you don’t make it about Alabama,” said the 49-year-old native Alabamian who played walk-on receiver for Alabama. “I’ve been at Alabama. I spent 13 years there [coaching also], so I can tell you, there was a lot of times as a player I walked off the field and I wasn’t sure that we were better than that team, but they thought we were better, and we won a lot of games when we got off the bus. I think for our program, it’s something that’s been important to me from Day One, is to make it about us.”
The junior cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who made both an interception with a 46-yard return and a stinging sack in the game-turning second quarter, said, “First, I feel like this program is based off of love.” Said quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who spent last January enrolling and commencing classes: “I’ve only been here for a year. But just in my first year, it’s just been amazing, definitely made the right choice coming to Clemson, and then kind of like Christian [Wilkins] and Cle [Ferrell] said last night, anyone out there that has any doubt about Clemson and what they say, it’s all true.”
They know it, and they feel it, and they’re beginning to lure players from more states than before, such as Justyn Ross, that dream receiver from Alabama who spent Monday night making Jerry Rice go to Twitter.
They knew it lurked somewhere within their capability to make Alabama Coach Nick Saban look ashen afterward, his countenance straining to rebound from a first outright mauling in his 167 games at Alabama.
They knew that if Alabama could make just two interceptions, one false start near the goal line and a mild six penalties all told, only Clemson could make that short list of sins so costly for the Tide.
They knew they were capable of seeing Alabama across the field and committing only one penalty all night, on the first possession, while suffering zero turnovers and zero sacks.
So while Swinney pegged Clemson as “a long way from a dynasty,” he did utilize the phrase “as good a program as there is out there.” He did revel in the fact that the 2019-20 team has its first meeting slated for Friday. He did speak of the mighty defensive line with its NFL-bound sorts and say, “We’ve got a lot of guys that y’all have no idea who they are right now, but this time next year everybody is going to know who they are.” He did say to the gracious Saban during the postgame handshake, “See you next year.”
By now, with the Clemson mind as it is, it didn’t even sound all that cheeky.
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