CLEMSON, S.C. — Throughout his excitable press conference on Tuesday, covering a wide range of topics, such as “15 For 15” T-shirts, growing up in football-mad Alabama, subsequently playing for the Crimson Tide and lamenting which coaching icon might make for a better ‘Voice Of God’ — Frank Howard or Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney squeezed thousands of honey words into his hour-long address.
But one word never surfaced during this engaging, care-free session: Favorites.
As in, no snarky replies to Clemson serving as touchdown underdogs to Alabama (6.5/7 points, depending on the sports book) — despite the Tigers owning the No. 1 national ranking.
And no specific strategy for how Clemson might combat Alabama’s absurd depth along the defensive line. Swinney’s measured response? He simply acknowledged the similarities between the Crimson Tide’s deep, athletic, physical corps of trench defenders … to the Tigers’ highly skilled defensive front from last season.
Yes, during this Q&A period, Swinney had an interesting knack of providing thoughtful, anecdotal answers to questions — ranging from light to hypothetical to semi-serious — while stealthily laying the groundwork for Clemson’s hidden national message upon arrival to Arizona this weekend:
The pressure to capture this season’s College Football Playoff trophy falls squarely on Alabama.
“If I could just script it … if you could say, ‘Hey, you’re going to get a chance to play the national championship game at some point, who do you want it to be against?’ I would pick Alabama, again … because they’re the best,” says Swinney, whose own Tigers could become the first 15-0 team in Division I/FBS history.
(Hence, the aforementioned ’15 For 15′ T-shirts, handed out to the Clemson players during fall camp.)
“(Alabama has) been the best. They’ve earned that. They’ve got 15 national championships, and I don’t know how many SEC Championships (25).
“… This is their fourth (title game appearance) in seven years. You know, so we want to be the best, so let’s go play the best team out there, and see if we can get it done and measure up. If we’re good enough to get it done, we’ll get it done. If we’re not, then we’ll go back to work and keep working.”
The above quote isn’t a standalone observation from Swinney. He’s also quick to quantify the vast differences between the two programs:
Clemson (37-17 winners over Oklahoma in last week’s Playoff semifinal) has nurtured a steady stream of blue-chippers over the last seven years, but the 2015 Tigers are primarily a youth-driven product (unlike last season). Simply put, they may be successful … but they’re hardly peaking as a long-term group.
Contrast that to Alabama (12 victories of 10-plus points this season, including last week’s 38-0 demolition of Michigan State last week), especially the defensive side of the ball, where a high number of juniors and seniors are consistently making the plays and consuming large chunks of the playing time.
And that’s saying something … factoring in the Tide’s willingness and stunning flexibility to routinely make wholesale changes in the trenches.
“They look a lot like we did last year. (The Tigers) led the nation in 11 categories last year, but we had six (defensive) linemen go on to the NFL,” gushes Swinney about Alabama. “We were deep and talented in that front last year, and experienced. I mean, I think we’re deep and talented right now. We’re just very inexperienced.”
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It would be easy for Swinney to resent the Crimson Tide as his first-ever title-game opponent, knowing Alabama already owns 15 national championships and that Nick Saban’s shooting for his fourth crown with the Tide (fifth overall — one at LSU).
As in, Why couldn’t this have been the year of Iowa reaching the College Football Playoff finals?
Hey, wasn’t Utah ranked No. 3 at some point late in October? What happened to the Utes?
And what motivated that Arkansas tight end to blindly lateral the ball across the field on a 4th-and-25 miracle play, as a means precluding Ole Miss from capturing the SEC West title?
And don’t forget about certain lifelong relationships: Swinney has a large number of Crimson Tide-enthused friends who will be rooting for Alabama on Monday night. Not their beloved buddy. There’s no other way around it.
(Friendship. Schmendship. This is Alabama football.)
As such, this 10-day period of waiting for the championship game must be a surreal experience for Swinney — simultaneously fielding compliments and one-time condemnations from treasured friends and acquaintances.
“I’ve got a lot of people that want to be in my family right now, by the way,” says Swinney. “It’s a big family. I’ve got a bunch of cousins and nephews that I didn’t even know I had. … But no, it’s all good. It’s all good. All I know is they’re not getting a ticket from me unless they’re wearing orange. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
It’s hard to overstate Swinney’s Alabama-Clemson connection, leading into the title game:
In the course of Saban’s decorated career — a 43-year journey which began at Kent State (his alma mater) and remains at Alabama in the present day — the iconic coach has made 11 different pro/college stops along the way.
(Twelve different locales, if you count separate five-year stints with Michigan State.)
Compare that to Swinney … who has coached at only two places — Alabama (assistant from 1993-2000) and Clemson (2003-present, with the last seven years as head coach).
And that’s by design. The only two employment-related worlds Swinney has ever known … are the only two worlds he wanted to experience.
“A long time ago … because when I was a sophomore at Alabama in 1990, that’s when Gene Stallings came, and he brought (in) a bunch of Clemson guys. Woody McCorvey was the receiver coach at Clemson, and that’s how I started learning. I knew about Clemson, but I started kind of intimately learning about Clemson through (McCorvey) and Ellis Johnson and Chip Davis and Danny Pearman and Curley Hallman,” recalls Swinney, a Pelham, Ala. native and walk-on receiver at Alabama in the early 1990s, before becoming an assistant with the program.
“Hootie Ingram was my (athletic director) for years at Alabama. The ties are crazy. I think Hootie was instrumental in getting the (Clemson) Paw patented when he was here. Obviously, Frank Howard (Clemson’s head coach from 1940-69 — 185 career victories). I met (him) when I was about 10 years old. I got a picture of (Howard) in my office having dinner with my mom and dad at a restaurant.
“Just the craziest — it’s just crazy how things get intertwined like that, and then (McCorvey — Clemson’s current chief of staff) obviously became a great role model and mentor in my life. Still is to this day.”
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Swinney declined to divulge any specifics for his pre-game speech. But it’s elementary to peg which life experience will be cited for Monday’s final motivational ploy: The 1993 Sugar Bowl.
On that New Year’s Day at the New Orleans Superdome, Miami and Alabama entered the game with unblemished records, but only the No. 1 Hurricanes were viewed as national-championship stock.
Never mind that Miami would only defeat the winning teams on its regular-season docket — Arizona, Florida State, Penn State, West Virginia, Syracuse — by an average margin of five points. And forget that Alabama, from September to December, surrendered 11 points or less a staggering 10 times.
In the early 1990s, a decade after Bear Bryant and long before Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was viewed in a stodgy, non-sexy light, often relying on a great defense to carry an archaic offense. Conversely, during that time, Miami had a well-earned reputation of being fast, flashy, physical, progressive, brash, deep and immensely talented.
“I think we were a 13 1/2-point underdog … every time I see (former Miami quarterback) Gino Torretta, I remind him of that,” says Swinney. “… Like one of the biggest underdogs ever. Some of the media people said, ‘We were a high school team going to play an NFL team,’ and we were 12-0. … But we won the game.”
The 1992 season represented Swinney’s swan song as an Alabama player. He would catch only four balls for 48 yards on offense, but his greatest contributions involved the dual roles of handling special teams and taking invaluable mental notes for the 1993 campaign — when “Dabo” (or William Christopher Swinney) modestly launched one of the most prolific coaching careers of the last 30 years.
Since 2011, only two FBS head coaches have notched five consecutive 10-win seasons — Saban (61 victories during that span) and Swinney (56).
Back to the ’93 Sugar Bowl: Despite the long Vegas odds and longer line of Crimson Tide detractors, Alabama pounced on Miami early and eventually rolled to a 34-13 victory.
The seminal moment for the Tide defense? During the second half, Hurricanes receiver Lamar Thomas fielded a sideline ‘Go’ pass from Torretta (the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner) and sprinted for a supposed 89-yard touchdown reception.
But in the ultimate display of supreme speed, hustle and relentless effort, Alabama safety George Teague chased down the speedy Thomas, knocked him to the ground and then stripped/recovered the ball around the 7-yard line.
Widely known as “The Strip,” Teague’s amazing forced turnover remains one of the greatest plays in Sugar Bowl lore.
“The best part of (the Sugar Bowl) was being in the locker room after the game and the celebration with your teammates. But what I got out of that morning … was a perspective of, ‘Man what a journey!’ and the best part of it was just — it was truly the journey,” recalls Swinney, wearing a wide grin. “It was the daily grind. It was the summer workouts. It was the bus rides. It was the movie theater. It was the dorm. It was the dining hall. It was the tough practices. It was just the relationships.
“You know, so I’ve always just kind of had that perspective of, ‘Let’s make sure we enjoy it,’ and I’ve tried to be purposeful in that this year with this team because I knew that these guys were on their way to a special season, and I think that they’ve had a great time,” says Swinney, who idolized Coach Bryant during his childhood and had grand designs of playing for the legend (The Bear died in 1983). “I don’t think (my players will) have any regrets.”
No regrets. No pressure. No out-of-whack expectations of dominance. No grand proclamations of an Alabama upset. Just sticking together and enjoying the moment.
It’s a good narrative for an up-and-coming Clemson squad that has curiously flown under the radar this season … as the nation’s top-ranked team.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.