The Clemson Tigers entered the 2015 college football season on very solid ground.Clemson had won 42 games the previous four years, including consecutive bowl triumphs over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma. Dabo Swinney clearly had a good thing going, but there was little question who had the best thing going.
"It's been great to compete against Alabama," Swinney said this week in a news conference promoting Monday night's Sugar Bowl showdown between his No. 1 Tigers and the No. 4 Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff. "For us, as we were trying to grow our program these last eight or nine years, one of the things that was a goal of mine nine years ago was to build a program that could be consistent and to build a program that embraced competing against the best. Alabama has been the best, and there is no doubt about it.
"So, for me, the first time to compete against them was something I was very excited about, just because they've been the standard, and how were we going to measure up?"
Swinney and his Tigers got that opportunity by winning their first 14 games of the 2015 season, including a 37-17 thumping of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl national semifinal. They met Alabama for the national championship in Glendale, Ariz., where the two teams traded big play after big play for more than three hours.
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Clemson repeatedly proved it belonged on football's grandest stage, racking up 31 first downs to Alabama's 18 and 550 total yards to Alabama's 473 behind a 405-yard passing performance from Deshaun Watson. Yet the Crimson Tide repelled the multiple Tigers threats, using Adam Griffith's successful onside kick and Kenyan Drake's 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to pull out a 45-40 triumph.
"We lost the game, but I felt like our brand grew," Swinney said. "We really believed we could win the game, or at least we thought we could. Coming out of that game, we knew that we could, and we knew that we were good enough.
"Sometimes you have to measure up against the best of the best to kind of really grow a little bit."
The teams played another championship classic last season in Tampa, Fla., with Clemson again outgaining Alabama and this time pulling out a 35-31 triumph on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining.
Alabama owned college football's spotlight after winning three national championships in a four-year stretch from 2009 to 2012. It appeared Ohio State might be the Crimson Tide's national nemesis after capturing the 2014 title and disposing of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal, but instead it has become a Clemson program headed by a former Alabama walk-on receiver.
Swinney's Tigers have a 40-3 record since the start of the 2015 season, while Alabama is 39-3, and both programs possess 42 consecutive appearances among the top 10 teams in The Associated Press poll. Wisconsin is next on that chart with 22 straight appearances.
"We are the program to beat right now," Clemson senior cornerback Ryan Carter said Thursday in a news conference. "We are the team that's trying to change the college football narrative."
Swinney returned to Tuscaloosa in October to take part in the 25-year commemoration of the 1992 national championship, which is Alabama's lone title between the Bear Bryant era and the Nick Saban era. He will forever be connected as both a player and a coach to Alabama, which was once a gauge for his Tigers but has become an annual foe.
"I'm getting tired of this," Swinney said with a smile. "Let's get somebody else in here. They just don't go away, which is why they're Alabama. At the end of the day, when you're competing to be the best in college football, you're going to end up playing these guys somewhere along the way.
"It's the way it's supposed to be."
This article is written by David Paschall from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.