By Philip Sikes // Athletic Communications
There is no shortage of slogans, rally cries or acronyms floating around the Clemson football program.
Whether it is the familiar “Best is the Standard” phrase adorning the walls of the indoor practice facility or head coach Dabo Swinney shouting over a huge crowd gathered at the Paw telling an ESPN reporter the win over Notre Dame was a “BYOG (Bring Your Own Guts)” type of game, the verbiage used throughout the program is omnipresent.
After working closely behind the scenes with the players and coaches, one oft-repeated expression raced through my mind as I watched the Tigers go blow for blow physically with mighty Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
“The best is yet to come.”
Swinney and players uttered these six words throughout the 2015 team’s magical run that ended just short of the program’s second national title.
But the words do not ring hollow with Clemson fans, or apparently the national media. Just hours after the heavyweight fight with the Crimson Tide on January 11, Clemson was listed No. 1 or No. 2 by most websites and publications choosing to release a “way too early” top 25 for the 2016 season.
The logic behind choosing the Tigers is obvious. Deshaun Watson returns for his junior season with an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, while one of the nation’s best offensive lines is set to make even another jump with the maturation of several young players. Plus, the defensive side of the ball appears poised to reload once again.
Clemson not only showed it belonged on the biggest of stages, the Tigers almost spoiled the Crimson Tide’s fourth national title in the last seven years. And beyond that, Clemson’s dominating win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl made the college football world take notice.
2015 Orange Bowl - CFP Semifinal Game - Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17
Perhaps no ground attack will be feared in 2016 quite like the tandem of quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, who announced after the season he was returning for his redshirt junior season at Clemson.
The two combined for 295 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Clemson’s rout of the Sooners on December 31. Watson opened it up in the first half and Gallman handled the workload in the second stanza, as the Tigers racked up 312 yards on the ground against Oklahoma’s defense. Watson set a Clemson bowl game record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
Defensively, the Tigers slammed the door shut for a second straight bowl game against Oklahoma. The Sooners did not score a point in the second half, capped by Ben Boulware’s tipped ball and interception with his back to the endzone in the fourth quarter. It was the second straight bowl game he intercepted a Sooner pass.
Following the game, Swinney was proud of his team for achieving its No. 1 objective, to print 15 (game) tickets for ’15.
“We wanted to get into the College Football Playoff, and we did that,” said the national coach-of-the-year. “We won our playoff game and earned ourselves an opportunity to compete for the national championship against the best team in the country.”
CFP National Championship Game - Alabama 45, Clemson 40
Tiger fans showed up in full force at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on January 11. A sea of orange was created inside the home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, making for one of the most electric atmospheres the national championship game has ever seen.
The game certainly did not disappoint.
In a back and forth affair, both teams put on a show for the ages. After Alabama jumped out to a 7-0 lead behind Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s 50-yard scamper, Watson and company responded in swift fashion. On consecutive drives, he connected on precise touchdown passes to former walk-on turned scholarship wideout Hunter Renfrow.
The only score of the second quarter was Henry’s one-yard run with 9:35 on the clock that put both teams in the halftime locker room tied 14-14.
Clemson looked to seize momentum in the third quarter after falling behind 21-14. First, placekicker Greg Huegel booted a 37-yard field goal. Then, Gallman burst in from a yard out to give his team a three-point edge heading into the fourth quarter.
The momentum turned after Alabama’s tying field goal. Adam Griffith lined up for a kickoff, but head coach Nick Saban and his staff had drawn up a bloop onside kick. It worked perfectly, and two plays later, O.J. Howard scored his second touchdown to give the Crimson Tide a 31-24 lead. Clemson cut the lead to four points, but it could not contain Kenyan Drake on a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
The loss was a difficult one to swallow, but it did not dampen Swinney’s spirit or optimism concerning his program’s future.
“Our team is built to sustain success,” proclaimed Swinney. “We have the right ingredients in terms of toughness, talent, the culture we have in our program and the will to win.
“It’s been 34 years since we had an opportunity to play for a national championship, but it won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back. I promise you that.”