GLENDALE, Ariz. — The telltale evidence in Clemson‘s locker room had been taken down by the time the media invaded Saturday night.
That would be proof the Tigers have not only been thinking about an Alabama rematch but perhaps obsessing about it.
“The Sports Illustrated front cover from last year, articles, things like that after Alabama won,” center Jay Guillermo said while describing the painful reminders of last January’s College Football Playoff National Championship loss posted in the locker room.
That’s all well and good. Motivational materials are nothing new. But Clemson didn’t waste any time in making its intentions clear for 2016. Those covers and articles began popping up in February, according to Guillermo, not knowing whether Clemson or Alabama would be back to this championship spot.
“We knew Day 1 where we wanted to be,” he added. “Even if we didn’t end up playing Alabama, it was back to the championship game.”
If there was any question whether Clemson was the biggest threat to Alabama’s run for a fifth title in eight years, you had your answer Saturday.
The 31-0 dismantling of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal should be disturbing (to the Crimson Tide, for starters) for several reasons. Urban Meyer was shut out for the first time in his career. The Buckeyes were shut out for the first time in 23 years and 295 games.
A Clemson defensive line anchored by two teenage freshmen who barely shave combined for 10 tackles (six for loss), three sacks and three pass break ups.
Cleelin Ferrell was the defensive MVP. Three of the defensive end’s four tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. Dexter Lawrence and his 6-foot-5, 340-pound frame showed up early after enrolling in January and threw up 225 pounds 30 times on the bench press.
There are guys in the NFL Combine who can’t do that. Oh yeah, one other thing: Lawrence was 18 at the time.
“That would be Big Dex,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “That freak. What I love about those guys: They’re hard working, no entitlement.”
What’s left is the first championship rematch in major college football history. Never mind that history essentially goes back only to 1998 (the beginning of the BCS Championship Game era).
Clemson has shifted the narrative. It is no longer the football upstart from a basketball conference. The Tigers have won at least 10 games six years in a row. Dabo Swinney went out of his way several times this week to label his program “elite.”
“To be an elite program, we have to win a championship,” countered wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.
Yeah, but no one is going to snicker this week when boatloads of experts pick the Tigers over the Crimson Tide. Clemson is arguably the better team right now. More than that, the Tigers seem destined for this.
“We played pretty close to perfect tonight,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said.
The first matchup between these teams nearly 12 months ago proved Clemson can do it. In the highest-scoring championship game in history, Tigers’ quarterback Deshaun Watson put up 478 total yards. They led in the fourth quarter. Nick Saban needed a fourth-quarter onside kick to turn the … Tide.
Now it’s possible the Tigers are better than a season ago. There were those who predicted a slide after standout defensive linemen Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson departed after harassing Alabama here last January.
“We feel if we’re lazy, everybody else is going to be lazy,” Ferrell said.
That was a rare embarrassment suffered by Meyer and the Buckeyes. They finally played like the least experienced team in the country, one that saw only six starters return from 2015 after 12 players were lost to the NFL Draft.
Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett was exposed (again) for his lack of downfield passing ability. Ten of Ohio State’s first 26 snaps went for zero or negative yards.
“I’m not used to it,” Meyer said. “We’re not used to it.”
What was left is an advertisement for what Clemson could be next Monday. That is more than a throw rug for Alabama’s 27th consecutive victory and fifth title in the last eight years.
Clemson’s biggest weapon is not so much muscle memory but muscle and memory. It knows it can beat Alabama.
“You ever get this high up on Mount Everest, air gets thin. It gets a little hard to breath,” Guillermo said. “We definitely heard about Alabama.”
Watson threw two more interceptions — his 17 are second-most in the country — but it doesn’t seem to matter. The Tigers are 6-1 in games the Heisman Trophy runner-up tosses multiple picks.
“I feel like the bigger risk, the bigger the reward,” Watson said. “I have guts and have that trust in my arm.”
And speaking of the Heisman, this might be a good time for a revote. Lamar Jackson‘s season is over. Watson, a two-time finalist, has accounted for 1,126 yards and nine touchdowns after the last two Heisman votes.
Who saw that coming? The Tigers, for one. Like everything else, they’ll prepare for next week. They have seen it before.
“To be able to do against a team that knocked you off last year is gonna be really special,” Guillermo said. “We’ve had stuff posted in our locker room all year. It’s been our motivation.”
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