NEW ORLEANS — Only one team in this College Football Playoff has a slide in its football facility, let alone a bocce-ball course, miniature golf and a bowling alley. Clemson has earned its fun-and-games reputation.
Inside those doors the Tigers have often returned to a serious topic: Since his promotion nearly a decade ago, Dabo Swinney has talked of changing the narrative of college football, and more precisely Clemson's place within that narrative. He tweaked that message toward a more specific slant during a team meeting this week, telling the Tigers that his goal was never to make his program the Alabama of the Atlantic Coast Conference but to make it so Alabama was seen as the Clemson of the Southeastern Conference.
“That was his vision and that rubs off on the players, that becomes our vision,” said defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. “That's what we strive for.”
Adding one win upon another, culminating in last season's national championship, Clemson has altered its place in college football's hierarchy. Dismissed for decades as an underachiever, the Tigers are now national powers, one of the few programs capable of annual championship contention. But Alabama is Alabama — the program everyone wants to be, and undoubtedly a program currently one hair ahead of everyone else in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Clemson included.
The Sugar Bowl could change that. Throughout Swinney's tenure the Tigers have achieved certain markers — a double-digit win season, an ACC title — but constantly felt the need to do so again and again, aware that reputations, like cruise ships at sea, need time to turn. Beating Alabama for the second postseason in a row could lead to an even more seismic shift: Clemson may wrestle away from Alabama the title of college football's dominant program.
“Just because then we would be the alpha,” linebacker Dorian O'Daniel said. “People would be talking about Clemson like they do about Alabama this day and age. That's just what comes with the territory when you take down a program like that.”
For too long the Tigers have been compared to programs in the SEC. It might only be fitting that a reputation first constructed upon a key win against that conference — a victory against LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl that co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott called “one of the starts to this run that we've been on” — would be cemented with another postseason win against the SEC, and a second win in a row against the Crimson Tide.
“It's a game to solidify that we can be the top program in the country,” said wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud.
It's true that Alabama wears the belt as college football's gold standard, but that designation is always temporary — it can be rented but never owned, and must be earned every season. In the past five years, Alabama owns 62 wins, one national championship and two championship-game appearances. During the same span, Clemson has 61 wins, one national title and two title-game appearances. Five seasons is a generation in the world of college football. The reputations of both teams hang in the balance at the Sugar Bowl.
“Why not us? Why can't we be the team that sets the standard,” said cornerback Ryan Carter. “To do that you've got to cut the head off the snake. And the snake is Alabama. They're the top program. Everybody wants to be like Alabama.”
Ascending to the top of the college football pyramid comes at a cost, as Alabama can attest. The Crimson Tide have long been the sport's black hat, an impervious Goliath. In comparison, plucky and upstart Clemson has been cast as the good guys; even after taking last year's championship, that dynamic is at play leading into the Sugar Bowl. Can the fun-loving program handle life as the villain?
The Tigers have some practice, but only to a point. Clemson certainly has worn a target since taking the title, if not since supplanting Florida State as the powerhouse of the ACC. The program lands every opponent's best shot. That's still different than the next step: Taking the Tide's place would cause Clemson to go from celebrated to a unique level of negative attention. Wearing the crown carries along a new set of responsibilities.
“The more you build up …,” Scott said, trailing off as a reporter provided the response: The more you'll be torn down. Among active programs and coaches, it's a way of life only Alabama can understand.
“In a way, I think we're ready to embrace that challenge,” Carter said. “If we end up being the villain, then so be it. We're ready to embrace everything that comes with that.”
Alabama has proved that the only way to survive under those conditions is to never deviate from what brought you there, to not budge one inch from the blueprint. Saban and the Crimson Tide have been unforgiving in their commitment to perfection. Any adjustments and modifications have been subtle tweaks; the program has left it to the competition to adapt.
“Alabama is going to be Alabama regardless of what happens in this game,” Swinney said. “Alabama ain't going away, I promise you.”
But his messages to Clemson aren't too different, if delivered in a different package. Since last January, Swinney has called Clemson not the defending national champions but the attacking national champions, because the Tigers had to go out and take it. Saban tells the Tide to dominate what they can control. A quote by George Washington Carver tattooed to the walls inside Clemson's indoor practice field reminds the Tigers that doing the common in an uncommon way “will command the respect of the world.” Chasing the Tide meant emulating the Tide in one respect: Clemson, like Alabama, is addicted to the process.
It's brought the two programs into direct conflict. Unlike other challengers during the Alabama dynasty, Clemson has backed the Tide into a corner. Avenging last year's loss would give Alabama breathing room and effectively table the debate for another year. Even without adding a second national title in a row, a Clemson win in the Sugar Bowl would cast the Tigers in a new light – as the pace-setter in college football, the program everyone else loves to chase.
“Our focus is just writing our own script at Clemson,” Swinney said, “and trying to just do something that's never been done and never been done at Clemson, and maybe never been done in college football.”