NEW ORLEANS – There’s no doubt Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, a former Alabama wide receiver, is a product of the Crimson Tide football program.
At last check, Clemson has won 29 straight games including national titles two of the last three years and is 21-2 since 2015 against top 25 teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
Yet in the finest tradition of poor-mouthing Alabama coaching legends Bear Bryant, Nick Saban and Gene Stallings, who once claimed his team had no homefield advantage in the first SEC championship game vs. Florida played in Birmingham’s Legion Field because he said ‘Bama was assigned to use the visiting dressing room, Swinney also keeps selling his program as underdogs.
No, not just the 5½-point underdogs that the Las Vegas oddmakers have tabbed No. 3 Clemson in Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game against No. 1 LSU.
But “disrespected” underdogs, from the media to the CFP playoff committee, for not giving the defending national championship entitled kudos.
How is a team on the verge of a 30-game winning streak considered a perennial underdog?
“You’d have to ask all them smart people,” said Swinney, feigning innocence at Saturday’s CFP media day. “I don’t know. It doesn’t really ever seem to matter. We’ll win 50 in-a-row, we’ll still be the underdog.”
And now that the title game is being played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 81.4 miles from LSU’s Tiger Stadium. . .
“We’re the only one that took a plane here,” Swinney said. “So yeah, this is definitely a road game. It would be like us playing for the national championship in Greenville.”
Behind the scenes, Swinney is comparing his team’s challenge against LSU Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow and teammates to the Rocky IV movie storyline. That’s when actor Sylvester Stallone’s underdog boxer fights Russian heavyweight champ Ivan Drago on Drago’s home turf.
“He said going to Louisiana is like going to Russia and we’re playing Drago,” Clemson offensive tackle Tremayne Anchrum said. “He’ll say something about Drago, like Drago is Burrow. And then we’ve got to be Rocky. We’ve got to train in Russia. We’ve got to fight in Russia.”
The Clemson players are buying into Swinney’s shtick of the week.
“This is almost like worse than an away game, like an away game in another country,” Clemson linebacker Isaiah Thomas assessed of playing in New Orleans.
Unlike Clemson’s perfect season, LSU’s 14-0 trip to the national title game hasn’t been fueled by conjured, fictional disparage.
LSU’s constant purpose is from several sources, one immediate and obvious.
“Monday,” said Burrow, referring to the national championship game when asked about LSU’s driving force. “We knew what we wanted. No matter which game we won, we expected to be 14-0. We expected to be here. Monday was the one we wanted from back in January.”
Also, LSU is a perfect storm of individuals driven by long memories recalling past non-believers and naysayers of its collective skills.
First, there’s the major college transfers – Burrow (Ohio State), tight Thaddeus Moss (North Carolina State) and defensive end Breiden Fehoko (Texas Tech) – who have all thrived with a change of scenery.
Then, there’s the lower-rated 3-star recruits. Almost half of LSU’s offensive starters – five – were rated just three stars on a 5-star system.
Included are All-SEC first-team running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and All-SEC second-team receiver Justin Jefferson, a duo that has scored a combined 35 touchdowns this season. Also, linemen Lloyd Cushenberry and Adrian Magee are key cogs in a group that won the Joe Moore Award as college football’s best offensive line.
“Everybody on this offense feels like they’ve had something to overcome,” Edwards-Helaire said. “Joe had his obstacles. Justin was a two-star athlete. There was the doubt on the running game at the beginning of the season. Everybody said that our offensive line was going to be mediocre coming into the year.”
LSU’s defense has four five-star rated and seven four-star signees in its starting lineup that was seething after a 58-37 win at Ole Miss on Nov. 16.
Rebels’ true freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee ran for 212 yards and four TDs, and the College Football Playoff selection committee took note. It immediately dropped LSU from No. 1 to No. 2 and pointed to LSU’s defense as the reason.
Consider LSU’s defensive fire lit, holding its last three opponents (two top 25 rated) to a combined 45 points and 230 rushing yards. But it’s still never enough, even after embarrassing Big 12 champion Oklahoma 63-28 in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl CFP semifinal two weeks ago.
“We were frustrated with ourselves that we gave up that many points, stuff we shouldn’t have allowed,” LSU outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said. “We want a perfect defensive game. We’re never complacent. Even after we have a great game there’s always something.”
There won’t be contentment until the job is finished emphatically Monday night.
“We have a lot of guys that’s not satisfied with just winning the SEC championship, a lot of guys that’s not satisfied with going undefeated,” Edwards-Helaire said. “We had a goal (the national championship game), it’s as simple as that. Get to it and try to dominate.”