Clemson looks to cap journey with championship
By Eric Sprott
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The process of advancing to play for a national championship is almost always an arduous one, full of highs and lows along the way.
Clemson’s run to Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game hasn’t been immune to those trying moments — think back to the Kelly Bryant saga, nail-biting affairs against Texas A&M and Syracuse, and the Dexter Lawrence suspension — but all things considered, it’s been a relatively smooth ride for the Tigers to this point.
It’s not easy to head into the championship game with an unblemished record, and most of the Tigers’ wins along the way have been laughers — including their 30-3 shellacking of Notre Dame last week in the Cotton Bowl.
In his final comments ahead of the title game against Alabama at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday this year’s team has been unique compared to his 2015 and 2016 squads that advanced to the title game, saying the journey has been wholly unlike any other he’s been a part of.
“This has been a very joyful season is the best way I can say it,” he said during a news conference at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. “I really have enjoyed the day-to-day, mundane activities of just being around this team, and a lot of times it’s felt like this team kind of wanted to hit pause, and I do think that they’ve enjoyed the journey.
“I do think this senior group has savored every moment along the way, and they haven’t looked ahead.”
Looking back, Swinney spoke of the 2015 team, when the Tigers were 14-0 heading into the title game against Alabama before falling in a 45-40 classic in Glendale, Ariz. That year’s team was wide-eyed, Swinney said, as everything about the experience was brand new.
The following year, Swinney said, the expectation was to get to the title game, and the Tigers were in a hurry to get there — which the head coach said wasn’t exactly ideal.
“We knew we had a really good team, and that team, it was a little bit more of a grind,” Swinney said. “It was almost like that team wanted to hit fast-forward, like, ‘Can we just, like, get here?’ and it doesn’t work that way. And I didn’t think we played great early in the season, ended up losing a game, but obviously we went on to win it all.”
That season, there was an ugly six-point win over Troy, narrow victories over Louisville and Florida State, an overtime win at home against N.C. State and a seemingly inexplicable senior day loss to Pittsburgh, fully illustrating Swinney’s point.
But, of course, the Tigers played their best down the stretch after the loss to Pittsburgh, slamming South Carolina 56-7, crushing Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl and topping the Tide 35-31 in Tampa, Fla., for the championship.
This year, it’s been smooth sailing having barely been challenged outside the tight wins over Texas A&M and Syracuse, and there’s been no desire to speed things up. If anything, Swinney said, the team has been set on enjoying the process — a reflection of a senior-laden group that has known nothing other than being part of the playoff field each of the last four years.
“This group of seniors is unlike any group I’ve ever been around,” Swinney said. “I mean, I’ve had some amazing, unbelievable individual leaders that I’ve been around, but nothing collectively like this group. I mean, 26 guys get votes for captains. This is a special team, and their focus and how they handle themselves in the off-season, in the spring, the summer, the day-to-day interaction, I just, I wanted to enjoy all of it.”
Whatever happens Monday night, win or lose, Swinney is adamant the 2018 season will be remembered fondly after the ride that’s been enjoyed thus far.
“I don’t have any doubt that they will treasure their time this season when they finish,” he said. “This is what we all set out to do, 130 teams, and you have two teams that have an opportunity to compete on this stage, and we’re thankful and blessed to have this moment.”
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