GLENDALE, Ariz. — Here was Clemson, jarred out of its five-month reverie, loser in the national championship game it was certain it would win. This was a team sure it could deliver what had seemed only distantly possible for the previous 34 years, but because it didn’t, the question of what was next intruded upon the Tigers’ quiet, densely warm locker room in a most unpleasant way. All that was left was to absorb the reality of failure and find some meaning in it before guys had even left the building.
On one end of the room co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott prayed with Clemson’s running backs, their arms locked, their heads bowed and their eyes shut tight. Before he broke away, Elliott delivered a secular message: “Hold your heads high.” Only a few steps away a red-eyed Brent Venables stood in a circle of silent linebackers. The defensive coordinator talked to the group about all the good things that had brought them to this point, and all the disillusionment they now faced. And he insisted this was just the start of the way back.
“You guys are good men,” Venables said. “I’m telling you, it ain’t like this everywhere. Be strong. It builds you.”
The Tigers are done but aren’t finished. Their 45–40 loss to Alabama at University of Phoenix Stadium was a hard-stop to a 17-game winning streak and the sense of inevitability that had floated the program to the national title game. Clemson had won 56 games from 2011 to the end of ’15, but there would not be a 57th in its first outing of a new year. The defeat wasn’t the culmination of everything head coach Dabo Swinney and his staff had built. There is something very big left to do. So, why not recast Monday’s anticlimax as a very compelling reason to do it?
Just minutes after the Tigers’ band finished the alma mater and Swinney’s open hand closed so he could pump his fist one more time, he stood before his players and told them how proud he was of them. And then the Clemson coach declared that he expected to be playing for another championship in one year’s time.
This was a team that kept talking about getting to the national championship game again, like every team in its position does, except the Tigers will be eminently well-equipped to make that goal happen. “It’s been a long time since we’ve stood on top of the mountain,” Swinney said. “We’re not quite there. But we can see it. And we’ll get there.”
The Tigers’ 46-year-old coach is as sure of this as he is of his home address. On a Wednesday night in late September, he sat in his office and issued almost exactly the same promise, confident that his program’s consistency would eventually lead to “one of those special seasons,” as he put it then.
And what followed was special, if not quite special enough. There were wins over Notre Dame (24–22 on Oct. 3) and Florida State (23–13 on Nov. 7), then the ACC championship (45–37 over North Carolina on Dec. 5), then the resounding thumping of Oklahoma (37–17 on Dec. 31) in an Orange Bowl semifinal that many figured would expose Clemson.
Along the way, the team carried itself with the character Swinney demands. Outside the locker room late Monday, Marcie Radakovich, the wife of Tigers athletic director Dan Radakovich, recalled how hotel employees have remarked this year that players leave their rooms almost unusually neat.
It was not hard, then, to consider the 14–0 record and the intangible stuff and expect the confetti to fall for them. But a win against the Crimson Tide was not necessary to affirm Clemson’s place among the nation’s elite programs.
The Tigers did have to avoid a flop, but what transpired Monday was far more exemplary than that. Riding the brilliance of sophomore quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson, Clemson rolled up 550 yards of offense. It whipped Alabama’s offensive line for nine tackles for loss, including five sacks. It stumbled far too much on special teams—there was a blocked field goal, a failure to recover a crucial onside kick and a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown allowed—but for a very long while the best team on the field seemed to be the one with orange jerseys. “The way that we played, it shows that we belong,” fifth-year senior left guard Eric Mac Lain said. “Clemson is here to stay.”
Of course, it would also have been really nice to beat the Crimson Tide, to do the one last thing left for the program to do. But this is why the Tigers welcomed the idea of what comes next: It ought to resemble what came before.
When he wasn’t fitting throws into subatomic windows, Watson was eluding tacklers and causing Alabama coach Nick Saban’s headset to fall off in the process. Watson returns for 2016, and he may be leading a team that will occupy the No. 1 slot in the preseason rankings. One of the favorites to win the Heisman will be among 12 or 13 starters from the championship game who are likely to be in a Clemson uniform next fall.
As difficult as it is to forecast the state of college football months in advance, the team that lost the national title game on Monday night is clearly one of the front-runners to play in it again in 2017. “We don’t really care about the rankings at the end of the day,” Watson said. “We still haven’t gone through spring and summer, so who knows what’s going to [unfold]? We’ll just have to see what happens. We were very close, a couple plays away, so we have to grind a little harder. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The Tigers will benefit greatly from Watson’s talent and apparent immunity to complacency—“If I would’ve won [the title], I still would’ve had that determination to come back and win it again,” he said—as well as Swinney’s steel-belted self-assurance and unflagging optimism.
After he completed his news conference duties, Clemson’s coach walked back into the locker room and began to make the rounds. He gave a double-hug to a pair of offensive linemen. He stopped to visit Shaq Lawson—the redoubtable junior defensive end who played on a gimpy knee and had two sacks—offering another embrace as he murmured into Lawson’s ears. Swinney stopped in front of redshirt freshman receiver Hunter Renfrow, tousled his hair and smiled at the baby-faced former walk-on who had seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Swinney even had a deep embrace for Stephone Anthony, the former Tigers linebacker now with the New Orleans Saints, who was lingering in the locker room with his former teammates.
He also had a very specific message as he pulled his former star close.
“We’ll finish this,” Swinney told him.
“We stand toe to toe with everybody in the country,” the coach had said a few minutes earlier in his postgame debriefing. “This program doesn’t take a backseat to anybody. We can play with anybody. We can beat anybody, and that’s a fact.”
It was Anthony who committed to Swinney and the Tigers on national television in 2011 and famously added one proclamation when he did. It was the sort of semiblind belief that radiates through the program and boosted it to a championship opportunity in the desert Monday night.
“Clemson is coming,” Anthony said back then.
“Well,” Mac Lain said late Monday night, “Clemson is here.”
Here, for certain. But not quite there yet.