NEW ORLEANS — The narrative changes so quickly in sports. Yesterday’s cuddly underdog becomes today’s dynasty and before long it’s hard to remember how the old order of things toppled. For decades, Clemson was one of those colorful football teams that would occasionally emerge from the crowded pile of Saturday afternoon highlights for a brief tour of the sun.
The Tigers have long had one of the coolest helmets in the game — bright orange, white tiger claws on both sides. They have long had one of the bucket-list home fields in all of sports, Memorial Stadium, far better known as “Death Valley.” College football pilgrims have long known one of the great one-day excursions, if you have the stamina, is to hit a noon game at Death Valley, then make the 127-mile trek west along I-26 and I-385 to Columbia for a night game at South Carolina’s Brice Stadium.
Back on Jan. 1, 1982, Clemson finished off a 12-0 season by beating Nebraska, 22-15 in the Orange Bowl. Perry Tuttle filled the cover of Sports Illustrated, the headline screamed “NO. 1!” and that was a feel-good story for a while, until it turned out there weren’t a lot of NCAA rules and regulations that coach Danny Ford and his staff hadn’t twisted and torn.
Then along came a coach named Dabo Swinney.
And suddenly Clemson — sleeping giant all these years — began to win, and win big, and win huge games, and it was a refreshing break from the usual blue bloods who elbowed their way into championship games. In January 2016, Swinney’s Tigers met up with the Alabama behemoth and lost 45-40. It was a nice story for the cute upstarts.
A year later, Clemson beat Alabama, 35-31, in one of the great college football games you’ll ever see. Last year, the Tigers did it again, this time humbling Alabama in a way that Alabama had almost never been humbled under Nick Saban. Now, they are back, defending champions, they have won 29 games in a row. When they take the field at the Superdome on Monday night, it will be 741 days since they last lost a football game.
The debutante has become the dominator.
“The last decade?” Swinney asked Sunday, when someone asked him to explain how Clemson could force its way into the team picture alongside the traditional college football powers: Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas. “Transformative. Is that a word? We’ve transformed Clemson, and the next decade is the Roaring ’20s, so I’m excited about that — I heard those were great. Hopefully we can relive those.”
On the other side of the field is another team that knows all about being a sleeping giant. For years, for decades, LSU had everything you could ever want to build a superpower: a litany of terrific coaches; a wealth of local talent, most of whom are handed purple and gold rattles and miniature footballs in the crib; and its own Death Valley — née Tiger Stadium — which has been one of the fiercest home-field advantages forever.
And yet, for the first 98 years of LSU’s football history, there was only one year in which these Tigers finished No. 1 — 1958, an 11-0 run under coach Paul Dietzel capped — as many LSU supporters have already duly noted — by a 7-0 win in the Sugar Bowl over — yep — Clemson. Funny thing: That isn’t the most famous LSU team. That was the next year, when they were No. 1 for eight straight weeks, when Billy Cannon won the Heisman Trophy capped by his forever punt return on Halloween night that beat Mississippi, 7-3.
But the Tigers lost the next week at Tennessee, and they weren’t heard from as national contenders for decades because of a familiar, and chronic problem:
Alabama, of course.
Bear Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1958, and for the next 25 years the road to the SEC — let alone No. 1 — rolled through there. Funny, then, that when LSU’s modern resurgence began in 2003 — a BCS title for Saban, followed four years later by one for Les Miles — it has been kept relatively in check by the fact that LSU not only shares a conference with Alabama but a division — the SEC West. In 2012, they also shared the BCS title game despite LSU having won the regular-season game. Bama — and Saban — won that one, 21-0.
So it is hard to measure just how much a fourth national championship would mean to LSU, which will have the advantage of a friendly crowd in the Dome and a mission to fulfill so many dreams for so many of its players.
“There’s a lot of things you can look at this game for motivation, and the only motivation we’ve used is to finish strong and focus on winning the game,” LSU’s Ed Orgeron said. “But those external motivations are there. These guys have always wanted to play in the Dome. Grant [Delpit, an LSU safety] is from New Orleans. His family was displaced from Katrina. All his family will be there. It will mean more to our guys that we’re playing here in New Orleans for the championship, no question.”
Tigers versus Tigers, combined 28-0, 60 minutes for a championship. Yeah. Let’s go.
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