SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Motivation in college football is both fickle and omnipresent.
Such is not surprisingly the case in a sport based on the play of 18-25-year olds, where wild swings of momentum in the lead up to a game and in the 60 minutes after kickoff are both tangible and frequent.
Good coaches know this. Great coaches use it.
Dabo Swinney certainly falls in the latter category, having turned firmly from somebody oft-criticized for surprise letdowns into one of the game’s best. He has not only turned Clemson into an elite program at the top of the mountain but one that now can attach the word dynasty to describe this magical run the Tigers are on following their 44-16 destruction of defending champion Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.
“There hasn’t ever been a 15-0 team and I know we’re not supposed to be here. We’re just little old Clemson and I’m not supposed to be here,” said Swinney, his million dollar smile as wide as ever. “But we are and I am. How 'bout them Tigers? I’m so proud of our guys, these seniors. We beat Notre Dame and Alabama. We left no doubt and we walk off this field tonight as the first 15-0 in college football history."
While some of Swinney’s players quickly seized on the "greatest ever" talk about this 2018 season, that will likely be decided on another day when the recency bias of that destruction fades a bit from memory. But the case these Tigers make certainly is a good one. It was a result that was simply not just the program’s third national title and second in the last three years, it capped off a 55-4 run the past four seasons and a string of records, draft picks and, yes, plenty of those trademark guts.
“It’s just a dream,” said quarterback Trevor Lawrence. “Shortly after (getting on campus), we had this meeting that coach Swinney is talking about us having on Friday. It was a little bit different tone coming off the game to Alabama last year — and it probably will be different this year. It was the start of a long journey.”
The Tigers finished No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 4 in scoring offense. Lawrence didn’t even start at the beginning of the year yet all he did was throw for 347 yards and three touchdowns against the greatest defensive mind in college football history, becoming the first true freshman to win a national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway did the same in 1985.
The defensive line, even without All-American Dexter Lawrence during the playoff, was phenomenal in controlling the line of scrimmage. Top corner Trayvon Mullen was the defensive player of the game while teammate A.J. Terrell set the tone with a first-quarter pick-six. The linebacking corps was fast and physical, bending but never breaking as they recorded stop after stop of what had been the second-best offense in the country.
“To see them go out as champs, No. 1 scoring defense in college football, 15-0, the best ever, knocked out the champs to do it, against the best offense I’ve seen... this is a special performance,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables remarked. “A special year and a great legacy.”
It’s also a legacy that was fueled by failure and the taste of success they felt in each of the two previous playoffs. While much was made about this being the fourth meeting between the Tigers and the Tide, the inept offensive effort Clemson had in the Sugar Bowl last season wound up serving as the genesis for a lot of things that culminated in holding up the golden trophy at Levi’s Stadium.
It was why Lawrence was throwing the ball around like Joe Montana in the new home of the 49ers instead of previous starter Kelly Bryant for one. It was why the Tigers were able to gut through close victories over teams like Syracuse and Texas A&M for another. That awful night in New Orleans for the orange and purple last January was just more fuel to the fire that powered this incredible run.
“Last year we were hoping to change the narrative in college football and beat Alabama. It’s only fitting to do it tonight and in the way we did it,” said wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who caught the game-winner in the 2017 title game and had two catches for a modest 10 yards on Monday night. “We watched Rocky III last night and all year we talked about the ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ That’s something coach Swinney talks about but I really sensed it. They didn’t have that look about them and we did. Just like last year we didn’t have that look.”
Why they had that look this time around starts at the top with Swinney. While much gets made about Clemson’s famous slide at their football facility or the large (by ACC standards) recruiting budget or any number of things, it’s the tone that has filtered down from their head coach that has truly made this a special run at a special place.
“Growing up, we were always good but we didn’t have that ‘it’ factor,” Renfrow added. “Coach Swinney has been that ‘it’ factor.”
It’s also a culture that not only feeds off that underdog mentality that has been at the tiny school in South Carolina for ages but one that is embraced because of how reliant the program is on making sure there’s a family atmosphere from the recruits to the fans that storm the field after every home game.
And they’re not joking when they say it’s a Clemson family and that was readily apparent as the senior wideout left the field and posed for pictures with two of Swinney’s sons on the roster. Venables won this title with one of his sons, a freshman linebacker. Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott was able to turn and hug his father Brad, the program’s director of football development. Former players like Brandon Streeter moved up the ranks internally and others like Tony Elliott keep passing on other opportunities to remain at Clemson.
It all paid off not just with a victory, but a thumping.
One doesn’t just beat Alabama like that. Not that team, with the Heisman runner-up and future first-rounders all over the two-deep. It was far from a victory, it was a statement given the who, how and why.
“I didn't do a very good job for our team, with our team, giving them the best opportunity to be successful. I always feel that way, even sometimes when we win, I think there are things we could do better or that I could have done better,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “But particularly in this case, never really ever got comfortable with what we needed to do to win this game, especially on defense, especially the matchups we had in our secondary versus their receivers. That was something that was kind of bothering me going into the game, and as the game unfolded, it worked out that those matchups were a big difference in the game.”
What’s particularly scary to Saban or anybody else on the Clemson schedule in 2019 is just how much of the team will return.
Lawrence will have two more seasons in a Tigers uniform and top target Justyn Ross — he of 301 yards and three touchdowns in the playoff — will be right there alongside him. Dynamic leading rusher Travis Etienne will return and the recruiting has been operating at such a high level that five-star recruits like Xavier Thomas will have no issues taking over for veteran standouts like Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell as they filter out of the program.
“I get motivated by winning. I don't have to lose to get motivated,” said Swinney. “Man, I'm as motivated as I've ever been to get back to work with next year's team and kind of figure it out because it's going to be fun because we've got a lot of unbelievable seniors that are moving on but we've got some dynamic pieces like Justyn Ross and that guy right here, that No. 16 coming back that are going to lead the way.”
So get ready college football. Clemson is not only here, but looking like they’re here to say for a long, long time. They may still preach that they are underdogs until Swinney’s dying days but for now, it’s quite the view they have as the top dogs.
Stat of the Title Game
The last head coach to beat Alabama by more than three touchdowns was Nick Saban (when he was at LSU).
Tweet of the Title Game
Superlatives of the Title Game
Best player: Trevor Lawrence
Honorary Les Miles Goat(s) of the title game: Tosh Lupoi and Nick Saban
Play of the Title Game
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s how I voted to conclude the 2018 season:
4. Ohio State
6. Notre Dame
10. Washington State
16. Texas A&M
Best of the rest: Penn State, Iowa State, Fresno State, West Virginia, Appalachian State, Mississippi State, Army, Utah, Cincinnati
Pre-snap Read for 2019 Season
Are you ready for Alabama-Clemson V down in New Orleans next season? You better be.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of clemsontigers.com)