Don’t sleep on Clemson - it’s pretty good, too

That fellow on the left can coach a little, as well.

Combined ShapeCaption
That fellow on the left can coach a little, as well.

In addressing the gulf that still lies between college football’s two top-ranked teams – Alabama and his Clemson Tigers – Dabo Swinney has been known to rely upon a folksy acronym rather than frustration or jealousy.

That’s so much healthier.

In his playing days, Swinney recalled, all the best on the team rode on one bus. Everyone else was on the ROY bus. ROY, as in Rest Of Y’all.

So, you see, it is just the way of things today that there’s Alabama aboard one bus. And the rest of y’all on a trailing one. Including even the Tigers.

Regardless of the fact that Clemson is unbeaten this season and embarking on its fourth consecutive College Football Playoff as a double-digit favorite over Notre Dame in Saturday’s Cotton Bowl. “We’re on the ROY bus,” Tigers guard John Simpson said, “because they’re still looking at that other team because it’s really good.”

“We’re obviously still being overlooked (for) another team. Hopefully we can be the model program,” Simpson said. “That’s what I want to do before I leave, help this program and this team be the model program so they look at us like we’re the best. We don’t want to be second to nobody.”

Clemson and Alabama have been headliners in the past three College Football Playoffs, splitting their two national championship game meetings and the Crimson Tide winning handily, 24-6, in last season’s semifinal. Oddsmakers give both teams a very healthy chance of meeting for another championship after Saturday’s prelims have played out. In the other half of the bracket, Bama is a two-touchdown favorite over Oklahoma.

In getting to this point, Clemson has done so much of its work in the shade of Alabama’s dominant season. Both teams are equally undefeated – as is Notre Dame – but it is Bama alone that has commanded most of the haughty adjectives lately. Nick Saban’s best team ever? Perhaps.

Is it really possible for a team as good and as accomplished as Clemson to be a little bit overlooked? Is Alabama really such a large blip that there is scarce room on college football’s radar screen for anyone else?

“I think that could happen,” Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant said. “But all the teams ranked below us want to beat Clemson. We can’t worry about who’s getting hyped up the most because at the end of the day, it’s about who plays the best.”

Maybe part of Clemson’s identity issue is because of the modest conference in which it plays – it is the lone ACC team among the top 20 in the playoff ranking, while the SEC put seven teams in the top 20.

Maybe it was Clemson’s halting start to the first five games of 2018 – during which it escaped with a two-point victory over Texas A&M and a four-point win over Syracuse – while Alabama was blowing doors from the get-go. Maybe some impressions were cast in quick-setting cement, never to be revisited.

Or, maybe, no one, not even an ambitious lot such as Clemson, can dent the Saban/Alabama mystique.

Whatever the combination of factors, even the Tigers’ own coach has put his bunch on the ROY bus (in what could be more a masterful motivational ploy than modesty).

The mistake would be to continue to be so blinded by Alabama’s shine that you still lose sight of Clemson here at year’s end.

Listen to the Tigers’ Campbell-trophy-winning defensive tackle Christian Wilkins talk about just how good and comfortable this team feels now, with Notre Dame next up:

“This is the deepest we’ve ever been. We’ve got three or four guys at every position who definitely can get the job done. We’re a pretty healthy team, too. The healthiest we’ve been. The most experienced we’ve been. This is all everyone on the team knows – the playoffs and getting ready for these kind of games.”

Clemson has some momentum of its own going to the Cotton Bowl. Since the Syracuse game, none of the Tigers’ eight opponents has come within 20 points of them. They won their conference championship by 32 points – granted against a now six-loss Pitt (further proof of the ACC’s feebleness). The most significant Clemson player without experience in New Year’s college football, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, has grown quickly into all the expectations that followed him out of Cartersville.

No. 3 Notre Dame represents by far the greatest test for a Clemson team that has faced no one ranked inside the top 15 this season. The Fighting Irish will provide the best read on a bunch that entered this season with a great deal of noise – built largely around the Tigers’ brawny defensive line – but then like everyone else joined a congregation listening to all the hosannas thrown Alabama’s way.

“We control what we control,” said one of those Clemson linemen, Dexter Lawrence, “we don’t let a lot of things get in our heads. Sometimes, it’s good not to get all the hype.”

Then here comes safety Tanner Muse, who certainly doesn’t speak like any passenger aboard the ROY bus.

You see, Muse said, all that’s happened so far this season amounts to little more than the fireworks before the real game.

“There’s lot of smoke going everywhere, but when the smoke clears everyone is going to see the Tigers,” Muse mused. “Once everything clears, we’re still going to be standing strong. And everybody’s going to be like, wow, we missed it.

“We’re going to prove ourselves in the game. We’ve gotten to the playoff and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, they’ve been just all right.’ That’s OK, they can think what they want. But winning this game and hopefully the next game, maybe they’ll say, ‘Gosh, they were a really good team, one for the ages.’”