We what we saw New Year’s Eve was the Clemson I’d been waiting to see all season — not just a team capable of eking out narrow victories but a team strong enough to dominate a really good opponent. We saw that team against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl last season. This was even more impressive.
I’m not sure any Urban Meyer team — not at Utah, not even at Bowling Green — has ever looked so helpless. And remember, Ohio State was favored. (Feel free to forget that I picked the Buckeyes to win.) Given Urban a month to prepare and the opponent is usually in trouble. Clemson was so much the better team that you wondered if ESPN switched the semis without telling anybody — that Clemson was really Alabama and Ohio State was Washington.
When this season began, Clemson was No. 2 to Alabama’s No. 1, which is how last season ended. (For the record, I had the Tigers ranked ahead of Bama.) In the third-from-last set of College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson had slipped to No. 4 behind both Ohio State and Michigan. The home loss to Pittsburgh was the best thing that could have happened to the men of Dabo, seeing as how they’d been flirting with losing ever since their opening night at Auburn.
When a team returns most of its stars from a heady season, there’s invariably a hangover. Florida State in 2014 and Ohio State in 2015 were never as good as expected. (Neither was Alabama in 2010; that might well have been Nick Saban’s most talented team, but it lost three games.) Clemson wobbled often but tripped only against Pitt, which was good enough to get the Tigers back to the playoff, which was all that mattered.
This might be an oversimplification, but Clemson played most of this season as if waiting for another shot at Alabama. Here it is. If the Tigers play in Tampa anywhere close to the way they did in Glendale, the championship game won’t be a Bama walkover. It’s still hard to imagine the Crimson Tide losing — they played at maybe 60 percent capacity and beat Washington by 17 points — but it’s not hard to imagine Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman testing the Bama defense in a way it hasn’t been tested since Jan. 11, 2016.
That night the Tigers mustered 550 yards and 40 points. They still lost, but it was a hairbreadth thing. Now they get to try again, and if the game comes down to Jalen Hurts having to outdraw Watson, Clemson will win. Not saying that will happen. Just saying it could.