PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — You really have to hand it to the Clemson Tigers. They have somehow managed to become the most respected disrespected team in college football history.
The reigning national champions are favored by 2 1/2 points against Ohio State Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl. They have won 28 consecutive games and earned a fifth straight College Football Playoff invitation. They have been in the top five of the AP poll for 39 consecutive rankings.
The Tigers choose not to acknowledge it.
“We’ll take our ROY bus,” safety Tanner Muse said last week.
ROY is the Dabo Swinney acronym for Rest Of Y’all, the term he uses when discussing the perceived lack of homage directed toward the Tigers. Last year, the ROY bus referred to Alabama and the Rest Of Y’all. This year, Swinney “took the tarp off the ROY bus” in early October, after Clemson struggled to beat North Carolina and everyone started asking what’s wrong with the defending champs.
Since then it has been proven that nothing was wrong with Clemson, other than perhaps a little early-season boredom. After surviving the Tar Heels, the Tigers won their next eight games by 31 or more points, a powerful flex that still was a bit lost amid the freshness and dominance at LSU and Ohio State.
While the football world was transfixed by the offensive makeover at LSU and the successful takeover at Ohio State by Ryan Day, Clemson just kept chugging along with a similar cast of headliners from last season. There were some new faces on the defensive front, but otherwise it was pretty much the same guys doing the same things against the same overmatched Atlantic Coast Conference.
Thus when all was said and done, Clemson had its playoff bid but not many of the other trappings of success.
There are four players in the college football Final Four who were Heisman Trophy finalists—none of them from Clemson. There are two coaches in the Final Four who won conference and/or national Coach of the Year awards—Swinney wasn’t one of them. There are three quarterbacks in the Final Four who made the AP first, second or third-team All-America teams—Trevor Lawrence is the one who didn’t.
And when the playoff debate centered on who should be No. 1, it never included Clemson. The discussion was solely about LSU and Ohio State, with the undefeated Tigers the decided third wheel. Everyone sort of forgot about the team that trucked Notre Dame and Alabama last year, and still hasn’t lost since then.
“Every year I’ve been here, it’s always the same story,” said Muse, a senior. “These other teams are on this pedestal, and we’re still considered to be on the way up. We don’t forget. Coach Swinney definitely doesn’t forget. He keeps track of who is for us and who is against us.”
In truth, people are more “against” the ACC than “against” Clemson. The Tigers have been so far ahead of the rest of their league that it has often been easier to downplay the level of their competition than actually credit the team doing the dominating.
Florida State is on its worst three-season run since 1974-76. Miami is 13-13 the past two years. Virginia Tech hasn’t won its division since 2016. Louisville and North Carolina both showed promise in their first seasons under new coaches Scott Satterfield and Mack Brown, respectively. But they’re not yet ready to fill the power vacuum left by the underachieving teams customarily at the top.
“Until they get Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech going, they’re fighting a perception problem,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said of the ACC Friday.
By November, the perception problem became an attention problem. While Ohio State was battling Penn State or LSU was clashing with Alabama or Oklahoma was having to rally from 25 down at Baylor, Clemson was winning so easily there wasn’t any compelling drama. Nobody was changing channels to watch the Tigers when they were up two touchdowns in the first quarter, then building blowouts from there.
So it is possible that Clemson somehow is a bit underappreciated, if not necessarily underrated. If you’ve seen a lot of Ohio State’s Chase Young but haven’t yet laid eyes on hybrid linebacker-safety Isaiah Simmons, you’ve missed out. If you’re watching J.K. Dobbins but sleeping on running back Travis Etienne, it’s your loss. If you know all about the transfer quarterbacks—Joe Burrow, Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts—but haven’t kept up with Lawerence, that’s a mistake.
Clemson has as many good players as the other teams in this playoff—plus it has the one coach who has won a playoff game. (Five of them, in fact.)
If Ohio State thinks for any reason that it won’t be in for a battle Saturday night, the Buckeyes might get run over by an orange ROY bus. The most respected disrespected team ever is a dangerous underdog—if only in their own minds.