CHARLOTTE — Concentrate, for the moment, on what can’t be disputed, not after this 38-3 pasting Clemson laid on Miami on Saturday night. What we know about the College Football Playoff: Clemson has to be the favorite.
Consider that status going forward, a month from now, and then think back to the past three seasons. Who does it better than the Tigers? Alabama, you say, and with good reason. We’ll get the chance to determine that for the third straight year in a playoff rubber match. But Alabama didn’t play on Saturday. So right now, in personnel, preparation, execution and downright swagger, we give you Clemson — defending national champions who don’t consider themselves that at all.
“We’re the attacking champs,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re attacking for another one.”
Cover your eyes, then, because Clemson doesn’t just have a team to win it this year. It has an operation set up to contend for years and years, the ACC’s Alabama without all those potential pitfalls in the SEC West. The team that won the Tigers’ second national title had its quarterback (Deshaun Watson) and top wide receiver (Mike Williams) taken among the first dozen picks in the NFL draft, and Swinney spent most of the offseason fending off more questions about who was gone than who was here.
“Everything coming into the spring was, ‘Oh, man, you won a national championship, how do you stay focused?’ ” Swinney said early Sunday morning. “It was just like we had checked the box and we were just going to stop working at Clemson. Like, what else? We’re just going to go lay on the beach or something.”
If the Tigers are laying on the beach, they’re finding players there. Think about what they have, what with Kelly Bryant capably stepping in for Watson — he completed 23 of 29 passes against Miami — and a ridiculous number of NFL-worthy defenders. Of the 61 players Clemson listed on its depth chart before the game, five are in their final year of eligibility. Now, players such as defensive linemen Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins could easily leave early.
“It shows they’re the class of our league,” Miami Coach Mark Richt said. “They’re the measuring stick.”
Watch out, now, before they’re exactly that — the class, the measuring stick — but for all of college football.
As Sunday dawned, we didn’t know whether Alabama would wriggle into the College Football Playoff despite having played for absolutely nothing on Saturday. The debate between non-SEC champ Alabama vs. two-loss Ohio State is for a paragraph and a page somewhere else.
What we had right here in front of us at Bank of America Stadium is a burgeoning dynasty. The Tigers hadn’t won three straight ACC titles since the late 1980s, when a championship haze still hung over the program, cast by the 1981 victors, the team that set expectations for all Clemson teams to come.
But this group, with Swinney preaching from the pulpit of preparation and execution, feels like it has staying power. This will be Clemson’s third straight appearance in the playoff. Two years ago, the Tigers lost to Alabama in the national title game. Last year, they avenged that loss. This year, they somehow had a blip against Syracuse — figure that one out, because the Orange lost its final five games of the year — but otherwise squashed all comers, concluding with Saturday night’s absolute beatdown.
Clemson’s record in that time: 40-3.
“They’re big, strong, physical, fast, well-coached,” Richt said, going down the checklist. “They’re as good as anybody in America.”
The next five weeks could serve to prove they’re better than anybody in America, not just in a single season, but over a period of years. Think about that journey. A decade ago, it wasn’t at all foreseeable.
When the ACC began the massive game of musical chairs that began conference expansion and retraction nearly 15 years ago, this conference born and bred on basketball pursued other schools for one reason: football. Its top target: Miami, long a beast in the Big East, a figure that could team with existing ACC power Florida State to begin a new era of ACC football, with the Hurricanes and the Seminoles at the center.
But a couple of funny things happened along the way to that vision, from the conference offices just off the highway in Greensboro, N.C. First, Miami wasn’t that — how to put this? — good. First Larry Coker, then Randy Shannon, then Al Golden — they tried to so much as reach the ACC title game, and they failed. Richt, in his second year at his alma mater, was the first to push the Hurricanes this far.
And his assessment: “We’re not there yet.”
They’re not there, because Clemson is, albeit by a bit of wacky fortuity. Six games into the 2008 season, the fourth in which the ACC staged a championship game, Tommy Bowden resigned as Clemson’s coach. See, the Tigers began that season ranked ninth in the nation, but they were 3-3, the last of those an unsightly 12-7 loss to Wake Forest.
So Bowden resigned midseason. That national championship, the one from a generation earlier, colored all Clemson seasons hence. So Bowden’s 72-45 wasn’t going to cut it.
The choice made by then-athletic director Terry Don Phillips was to bypass two former head coaches on staff — Brad Scott and Vic Koenning — and hand the interim job to a former walk-on wide receiver at Alabama, Swinney, who was all of 38, and then to essentially say, “Ah, the heck with it,” and hand Swinney the full-time job.
If Clemson fans are being honest, this was not universally well received.
Ask those in orange and purple among the 74,372 here Saturday night — enough that, after the game, it sounded like Death Valley itself as the two sides of the stadium cheered Tiger cheers at each other — and not one of them ever doubted dear Dabo, right?
“With him, you get exactly what you see,” said Bobby Hayes, a family friend of the Swinneys from back in Pelham, Ala. Hayes has known Swinney since “he was still in a playpen,” and as this Alabama man decked out all in Clemson gear stood on the field in the midst of celebration, he considered the man he had known since he was a boy.
“He turned from a walk-on at Alabama to making the team,” Hayes said. “Now look what he’s done.”
Now look what he’s done. In a period of insane coaching upheaval — Florida State really lost its coach to Texas A&M? Tennessee was really turned down by the N.C. State coach? — Swinney is beginning to rival Nick Saban as a model of stability. Plus, he is 18 years younger than the coach of his alma mater. And whatever you think about the SEC being “down,” it’s still inarguably easier to navigate to a title in the ACC, where Florida State is in transition and Miami isn’t there yet and the rest can vie for the Belk Bowl.
Afterward Saturday night, Swinney stood on the field, his white sweatshirt stained with orange Gatorade, dunked by his players again. He will play again on Jan. 1. He did not yet know his team’s opponent would again be Alabama.
But he knows his team’s outlook, and that is this: “Regardless of who we play, if we play the right way, then we think we have a chance to win.”
Clemson, so frequently, plays the right way. So maybe the more interesting debate isn’t Alabama-Ohio St. Maybe it’s about which coach has the best program in the country right now.
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