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'Little old Clemson' on verge of back-to-back national football titles

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after Clemson defeated

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after Clemson defeated Ohio State 29-23 in the college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz.  Credit: AP/Ross D. Franklin

NEW ORLEANS — A year ago on a championship night, after his Clemson Tigers had completed their surprisingly simple disposal of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recycled a description that had marked the once-giddy rise of his program.

“We’re just little old Clemson and I’m not supposed to be here,” Swinney said. “But we are and I am. How about them Tigers?”

A year and 14 additional victories later — for a total of 29 and counting — Clemson’s meeting with Louisiana State for the College Football Playoff National Championship Monday night includes stakes that extend well beyond a single celebration.

“I think it would be a list of one, back-to-back national championships in the playoff era,” Swinney said Saturday morning. “…I know we haven’t had the playoff era long, but it would be a list of one, so it would be pretty special.”

A Clemson victory would be more special than that, beyond the limited sample size of the six-season playoff era. Since 1968, when the Associated Press began its post-bowl poll, two schools have won three national championships in four seasons. Alabama won in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Nebraska won in 1994 and 1995 and shared the 1997 title with Michigan after winning the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll. The Miami Hurricanes won three in five seasons, 1987, 1989 and a split poll in 1991.

The 44-16 Clemson victory over Alabama last year made the Tigers the first modern-era team to win 15 games in a season. A victory here Monday night would duplicate that feat. A 30-game winning streak would equal the fifth longest since the A.P. poll began in 1936, not including the 34-game Southern California streak from 2003 to 2005 that was reduced by 14 victories vacated because of an NCAA penalty.

For all of that to become part of college football history, Clemson will have to overcome more than LSU Heisman winner Joe Burrow and a 14-0 team that overwhelmed Oklahoma, 63-28, in a semifinal victory. Clemson will have to contend with the overwhelming emotion LSU inspires here, where the school’s 2003 and 2007 national championships were won.

“I think we’re the only one that took a plane here,” Swinney said. “…You don’t know these things in advance, but I think it’s really cool for LSU. How cool is that, for them to be able to just hop on a bus and ride up the road 40 minutes or so? It would be like us playing for the national championship in Greenville.”

Finding LSU purple in this town is about as difficult as finding adult beverages in the French Quarter.    

“I kind of like it,” said Clemson junior linebacker Isaiah  Simmons. “It’s like us against the world. Everybody against us.”

The list of most dominant teams includes streaks that ended abruptly on unforgettable nights. Miami’s 34-game streak from 2000 through 2003 was stopped by Ohio State’s 31-24 double-overtime victory in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Southern California’s unofficial 34-game streak was ended by the dominance of Texas quarterback Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

And Miami’s 29-game streak in the early 1990s ended on another raucous night here, in the Sugar Bowl, with Alabama’s unexpected 34-13 victory. That Alabama team included a reserve wide receiver named Dabo Swinney, a walk-on who had earned a scholarship and would eventually stay to become a graduate assistant.

That was the last time Swinney came to this town. His team is staying in the same hotel this weekend, steps from the Mississippi River. The Clemson program he took over in the 2009 season had won one national championship in 1981. Swinney raised more than a few eyebrows after a 6-7 season in 2010 when he declared the Tigers were on their way to the most successful decade in the history of the program.

When that decade ended, Clemson stood a victory away from joining the most successful programs of the modern era.

“Regardless of what happens Monday night, this has been historic,” Swinney said. “Our program and even this team is not going to be defined by a scoreboard Monday night. Yeah, we win and we’ve won 30 in a row, and these guys went 15-0 back to back…We certainly believe and hope, and we’re going to do everything we can to win on the scoreboard, too. We know that happens. But no matter what, we’re not defined by that.”

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