Let's go back to Miami on the first day of 1982. It's No. 4 Nebraska against No. 1 Clemson in the Orange Bowl and the Huskers enter the game with a shot at the national title, despite starting 1-2, thanks to losses by Alabama and Georgia in the Cotton and Sugar Bowls.
As surprising as a two-loss champion would've been, the bigger surprise, arguably, was that Nebraska needed to beat Clemson to have a shot. The Tigers' football program at that point was not one of the "usual subjects."
At the start of the 1981 season Clemson ranked 64th in all-time winning percentage (.557). It was running mates with Wisconsin, Maryland and Illinois. The Tigers, coming off a 6-5 season in 1980, were unranked in the preseason Associated Press poll, but this wasn't unusual. At that point Clemson had only been ranked in the preseason four times in the history of the poll (the preseason poll started in 1950). When the 1981 Tigers climbed into the top five at No. 4 on Oct. 19 it was the program's second top-five ranking ever. Prior to that, Clemson had spent one week at No. 5 in 1959.
It was not a program that was used to playing for national titles. When the Tigers won that Orange Bowl, however, they were national champions for the first time and you can look at it now as the start of Clemson as a modern football powerhouse. By the end of the 1980s, Clemson was up to 40th on the all-time winning percentage list, then 36th at the end of the 1990s, then 30th at the end of the 2000s. Coming into this season Clemson ranked 18th in all-time winning percentage, which is just a massive change considering that the program started playing football in 1896. After last night's 44-16 win over Alabama, Clemson is up to three national titles.
I thought a lot about that history last night. It was a more shocking context for Clemson's victory than the final score. I'm of the belief that one game almost never proves as much as people want to think. Games are just agreed-upon endpoints. Results can be true or misleading, but most often a game falls somewhere in the middle. If Clemson and Alabama played again tonight you wouldn't make Clemson a 27.5-point favorite, for example. That would be insane. But you would probably make Clemson the favorite, which wasn't true last night. Endpoints are important, if imperfect.
Clemson isn't four touchdowns better than Alabama, though it will go down in history that way because that particular chapter ended on Monday. It was, however, the first team to show it could be four touchdowns better than a Tide team coached by Nick Saban for 60 minutes, and that says everything you need to know about the Tigers' program right now. If you didn't already view Alabama and Clemson as equal in college football's playoff era, maybe the margin of last night's win got you there. It was probably true all along, but having the same amount of national titles certainly has a way of evening the score. Since 2014 Alabama is 67-6 with two national titles, Clemson 65-7 with two national titles.
But there is one key difference here outside of the results, and it seems, at least to me, like one that was on Dabo Swinney's mind last night.
— Benjamin Criddle (@CriddleBenjamin) January 8, 2019
". . .If I can do it, if these Clemson Tigers can do it, hey, anybody can do it if you have a belief in yourself and what you're doing and you surround yourself with a bunch of great young people that are passionate about winning," Swinney said.
I don't know if he was thinking about Danny Ford and Clemson's relatively modest standing in college football 40 years ago, probably not, but his comments resonate that way. That is the difference between college football's two current dynasties.
There's a sense of inevitability to Alabama. That doesn't diminish in the slightest what Saban has done since arriving in Tuscaloosa. You could argue that it's the greatest decade-long run in the sport's history, and it's not that hard an argument to make. But even through its swoon in the 2000s –– every program has them –– you could safely bet that Alabama was going to eventually get it right because those type of programs, the best of the best, always seem to eventually get it right. How many coaches could make it right to the degree Saban has? Very few, and that's a problem for Alabama's next head coach to worry about, whenever that may come to be, but the Tide will always get it right enough for Alabama to feel like Alabama again.
Clemson, though? The run Swinney and the Tigers are on is unprecedented for that program. There was no inevitability to this. I've been to Clemson, a town with an official population of less than 17,000, a handful of times. It's an idyllic college town, if a bit out of the way. When I was there covering Nebraska baseball in 2016 one of the Clemson sports information staffers told me that most teams traveling to or from Clemson, including the Tigers, bus two hours to or from Atlanta. While being in the southeast still offers access to good football talent, Clemson is not an easy place to get to. If you were picking a place to build a new football powerhouse, Clemson, South Carolina, isn't in the top 10, much less the top two.
But the Tigers have built themselves into a top-two destination. While most college football fans are used to Clemson being that way, it's something of a miracle that the Tigers actually are.
As Swinney said last night, if Clemson can do it, "hey, anybody can do it." It was a pretty good reminder for all of the other programs chasing Alabama and Clemson. Many of them will never be Alabama.
But plenty could be Clemson.
The Grab Bag
- One sports book gave Nebraska 25-1 national title odds for 2019.
- Derek Peterson takes an updated look at some key stats for Nebraska basketball.
- Big game for Nebraska women’s basketball tonight as No. 4 Maryland comes to town.
- The race is on to surround Adrian Martinez with additional talent writes Greg Smith.
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