For Clemson, there's urgency in dethroning Alabama dynasty

ByRYAN MCGEE
January 8, 2017, 11:01 AM

— -- When John Madden, he of video game, foot fungus and broadcasting fame, wears his Super Bowl XI ring, someone inevitably asks the former Oakland Raiders coach the same question.

"They say, 'Hey John, how come you only have the one ring?'" the Hall of Fame coach likes to explain. "I always give them the same answer. My other four are at Terry Bradshaw's house. Unfortunately, he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers."

There is no more frustrating aspect of making one's living in the sports world than a team or athlete being really, really good and knowing that they are really, really good ... but also knowing that their place on the sports history timeline just happens to coincide with another team's place on that timeline. And those other guys, they aren't merely really, really good. They are really, really great.

Just ask the 1990 to '93 Buffalo Bills (dang Cowboys!) or the 1997-98 Utah Jazz (dang MJ!) or the mid-century L.A. Dodgers (dang Yankees!) or the 2017 Clemson Tigers ... maybe.

It's tough to be the last team standing in a college football world draped in houndstooth and crimson.

"The last 29 games we're 27-2 and Alabama's 28-1," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said moments after stepping off the team plane in Tampa, Florida, on Friday afternoon, arriving to take on the Crimson Tide in Monday night's College Football Playoff National Championship. "The two best teams are here. I don't think there's any question about that. Alabama has been the standard for college football. Everybody's been trying to catch up with them a little bit. For us, [being here] says we've become an incredibly consistent program. We can compete at the highest level ... now there's only one thing left to do."

They have a legitimate chance to do it. They know that. The national conversation leading into the rematch of last season's thriller in Arizona says that everyone else knows it, too. That has created a sense of urgency for those dressed in orange, "urgency" being a kinder way of saying desperation.

"This team that we have, knowing that for a group of these guys, this is their last game in a Clemson uniform, plus the team across that line of scrimmage, yeah ..." defensive coordinator Brent Venables paused and nodded his head. "There's a real sense of, 'We gotta do this now, this is the climb we've been on together,' that kind of feel to it. No question about it."

The Clemson team that will take the field Monday night will consist of the most successful recruiting class in program history, led by both the greatest player in program history and a man who might very well already be the greatest coach in program history. The Tigers are back-to-back ACC champions who have lost only two games over the past two seasons and suffered only one loss in their past six bowl appearances, including three College Football Playoff games.

Yet in spite of that three-ring binder of a r?sum?, Clemson is not regarded as the greatest program of its time. Instead, the Tigers are merely the latest in a conga line of not-quite-as-awesome-as-you-know-who teams that briefly interrupted the current Tide dynasty, but ultimately succumbed to it.

How do they avoid being swallowed up into the same hole as the other forgotten would-be champs? They must topple the team that handed them that lone postseason defeat, a 45-40 last-minute soul-crusher in last year's title game.

"Listen, Alabama is it. We've all said it a lot this week and we said it last year. They are the standard," quarterback Deshaun Watson said Saturday of the team that will be seeking its fifth national championship in eight years. "We're close. We've done so much together. But the king is still the king until someone knocks him off his throne. What they have done is what we all want to do. It's the last thing left that we haven't done together. Win the national championship."

Watson, widely recognized as the primary reason Clemson can win it, is also the reason for that added infusion of urgency. Among those players Venables referred to who are playing their final game as a Tiger, Watson's imminent departure for the NFL will leave the biggest of those holes to fill ... as in the biggest hole ever filled by any single athlete in the school's 121 years of football.

The Tigers have never been as good as they were before Watson's two full seasons at the helm, and the debate is already raging throughout Upstate South Carolina as to who will take over after he's gone. No one has the answer. To many, a rebuilding year feels unavoidable. Perhaps even a couple in a row. So why not go "All In" with Tiger Nation's football hopes and dreams during their last night with the sure thing?

"Sometimes it takes one guy to push a program to that one level where it hasn't been," says Tajh Boyd, Watson's record-breaking predecessor behind center, who has since seen many of those records broken by Watson. Boyd, who last played for Clemson in 2013, returned to the practice field this week to play the role of Alabama wunderkind QB Jalen Hurts. "Deshaun has taken what we did and bumped it up a notch. Now there's only one notch left to go."

And only one game left to shoot for that last notch with the guy who was so great at that whole bumping notches thing. Perhaps Watson's last great act might be to not only give the program its first national title in 35 years, but to push it forward with such force that the momentum can continue long after he has left.

"That's the next step for us. It's the only thing we haven't done and I think once you can do it once, you can do it again," said Swinney, who visited with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (no relation to John) earlier this year and discussed that very topic, breaking down the finer details of locker room culture change, getting over humps and kick-starting dynasties. In October, Maddon coached the Cubs to their first World Series championship since 1908.

"Everything we've done once, we've done it multiple times," Swinney preached. "Somewhere along the line we're going to get it done. I hope it's this trip, this time around."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events