Note: The following appears in the February issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.
“To be the best ever, you’ve got to do things that ain’t never been done.”
That was Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s message to his Clemson Tigers throughout the 2018 season, a year that saw record after record and streak after streak shattered with each passing week. All year, Swinney had placed an image of a mountain with 15 flags on the screen at the start of team meetings. The image bore the text, “How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time.”
But as orange and purple confetti fell from the Santa Clara sky like the rain and mist that had accompanied the majority of the team’s weekend in the Bay Area, Clemson had scaled the highest mountaintop in college football by defeating the sport’s biggest foe. And the Tigers could now lay claim to the first 15-0 season in the modern era of major college football.
Two years earlier, Clemson had won its first national title under Swinney – its second title in program history – by virtue of a go-ahead touchdown with one second remaining. That thrilling 35-31 victory over Alabama to conclude the 2016 season stands as one of the most memorable finishes to a national title game in college football’s illustrious history, but what happened in Santa Clara on a cool Monday night to end the 2018 season might stand as one of its most dominant.
Clemson rolled Alabama with a 44-16 victory, responding to a 16-14 first-half deficit with 30 unanswered points. If the message in 2016 was about how close Clemson and Alabama were, the message in 2018 was about how, at least for one night or one season, there was no questioning college football’s best team.
“Coach Swinney has been talking all year about ‘Leave no doubt,’ and obviously two years ago we were very happy to win – great way to win one – but it comes down to a couple plays,” Clemson Co-Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers Coach Jeff Scott told assembled media following the game. “That was the challenge Coach Swinney gave our team. Just play our best four quarters, and if we do that, we’ll leave no doubt.”
Believers in kismet might even say the win was preordained. In May 2018, Clemson Director of Football Operations Mike Dooley traveled to Santa Clara for meetings and site visits with College Football Playoff staff. As he walked through Levi’s Stadium for the first time, he glanced in the stands and saw a stadium worker power-washing the seats. Three time zones away from South Carolina, on the worker’s head rested a black and gold 2016 National Champions hat with Clemson’s iconic Tiger Paw.
Dooley immediately pulled out his phone, took a picture and sent it to Swinney. The photo Dooley sent accompanied a message: “You’re not going to believe this.”
Swinney showed the photo to his team during its first team meeting of camp on Aug. 1, intimating that it was fate for the Tigers to end their season in Santa Clara. When the team assembled for its first on-site meeting in Santa Clara five months later, Swinney had a surprise in order. Dooley had tracked down Joel Flores, the stadium worker from the photo, and brought him into the team meeting to a thunderous ovation from the team, coaches and staff. Accompanied by his granddaughter to translate, tears formed in Flores’ eyes at the reception.
It wasn’t the last the team saw of Flores. Immediately after Media Day on Saturday, the team arrived at Levi’s Stadium for its team photo. As the group assembled, they looked up, and on the stadium’s second level right above the designated photo area was Flores. The team exploded with cheers upon seeing him again, and Swinney and staff called him down to sit front and center in the official photo of the eventual 2018 champions.
Swinney promised Flores the Tigers were going to earn him a new National Champions hat. His Tigers delivered on the promise.
Clemson broke Alabama’s will down the stretch. Consensus All-America defensive end Clelin Ferrell stopped Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa on fourth-and-goal to give the Tigers the ball back early in the fourth quarter. One possession later, Clemson took a victory lap, and what a victory lap it was.
The Tigers put together a 14-play, 94-yard drive that lasted 10:02 to run out the clock. It was the first 10-minute drive in Clemson history, exceeding the previous longest drive in school history of 9:47.
When the night ended, it was quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the unflappable, 19-year-old true freshman, who had outplayed the Heisman finalist. It was the Clemson defense that held Alabama’s explosive offense 32 points below its per-game average entering the game. And it was the Clemson Tigers who posted a 28-point win against an Alabama team that a pantheon of pundits and observers had spent much of September, October and November placing among the sport’s best teams ever.
Lawrence collected Offensive MVP honors for the performance, completing 20-of-32 passes for 347 yards with three touchdowns. In the process, he became the first true freshman to win a national championship as a starting quarterback since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. But he wasn’t the only freshman providing the star power that night.
True freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross was one of college football’s biggest anomalies: a top-ranked recruit from the state of Alabama that didn’t end up playing college football inside the state’s borders. The native of Phenix City, Ala., put on a show against his home-state team, catching six passes for 153 yards with a touchdown and some highlight-reel grabs to conclude his two-game College Football Playoff run with 12 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns.
But the night belonged in spirit to Clemson’s senior class, who finished their college careers with two national championships and tied as the winningest class in major college football history with 55 wins in four years. As the group navigated the confetti between the trophy presentation stage to the celebratory locker room, its mission was complete. At 15-0, Clemson had climbed to the top of the mountain one step at a time, inserting itself into the “Best Ever” conversation by doing things that hadn’t ever been done.