By MIKE HERNDON
Let’s see if we can put this in terms you’ll all understand. Say there’s a popular New Year’s party that everyone wants to get invited to, but not everyone can. At this party, there’s a beer-chugging competition. For all the best chuggers from all over town, from the frat houses to the swanky clubs uptown to the dive bars out by the interstate, this is the ultimate opportunity to prove you’re the best, and there’s a trophy to prove it.
Four guys are invited to take part. One is a relatively new guy who hasn’t been invited before, but has blown away anyone who’s challenged him all year. He’s the life of the party, the guy everyone wants to be around, and the expectation is that he’ll barrel through this competition as well. We’ll call him Ed.
Another competitor is also new – new to the competition, new to town. He’s also beaten all challengers and comes from a bar who has had a champion before, albeit several years ago. We’ll call him Ryan. A third invitee competed the year before but fared poorly. He can put a lot of beer away but his opponents always seem to chug just as much. We’ll call him Lincoln.
And finally, there’s the defending champion. After taking the competition by storm a few years ago, he’s won two of the last three contests. His primary nemesis has fallen off his game, however, and he’s largely been slumming it with frat boys this year, whipping them easily, barely giving himself a challenge. He was pushed by one of them, but typically drains two mugs before they finish their first. He is usually still sober when they slide under the table.
Because he hasn’t needed as many mugs to finish off his weak excuse for competition, he finds himself the underdog to the new guys. And he is pissed.
By now, you know the party is the College Football Playoff and the defending champion’s name is Dabo.
It is curious, but not entirely unwarranted, that Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers enter this year’s College Football Playoff with such little fanfare. They have beaten only one team, No. 24 Virginia, that’s currently ranked in the Top 25. They nearly lost to middling North Carolina. With full-blown dumpster fires at traditional powerhouses Florida State and Miami, the ACC aside from Clemson may be as low as it’s ever been.
There is also good reason to believe some of the challengers have what it takes to dethrone them. LSU and Ohio State, in particular, have been impressive all year long. The Tigers have run through the SEC on the arm of Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and charmed the college football world with the often indecipherable enthusiasm of Ed Orgeron, knocking off Alabama and scoring at a pace nearly fast enough to make Tiger fans forget a decade of Les Miles offenses.
Ohio State, which went undefeated in an improving Big Ten in Ryan Day’s first year as head coach , may have the best combination of offense and defense of any team in college football this year. Perhaps as proof of this, the Buckeyes had a Heisman finalist on each side of the ball this year – quarterback Justin Fields and defensive end Chase Young.
But LSU’s defense has been exploitable, and both the Tigers and Buckeyes have injury concerns. LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the hero of its 46-41 win over Alabama, is questionable for Saturday’s Peach Bowl against Oklahoma with a hamstring injury. Fields, meanwhile, is nursing a sprained MCL that he claims is 80 to 85 percent, heading into Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl against Clemson. He’s played through it the last couple of weeks, but he admitted to USA Today and other outlets this week that “I just can’t really move like I want to.”
Clemson, meanwhile, has found its stride over the last half of the season. The Tigers have won their last seven games by 35 points or more, including a 62-17 demolition of Virginia in the ACC championship game. Trevor Lawrence, perhaps the best player in the country not invited to the Heisman ceremony this year, hasn’t had more than 10 incompletions in a game over that stretch. He has 20 touchdowns and no interceptions in his last six games. The defense has allowed more than 14 points just once this year – the aforementioned 21-20 escape against North Carolina.
It is difficult to repeat as a champion. One of the most difficult things about it, as Alabama’s Nick Saban constantly tells us, is avoiding complacency and regaining the hunger to win it all. It’s easier to get that fire in your belly when you haven’t been to the mountaintop before, no one outside your locker room believes you can make it, when you have something to prove.
The narrative this year, however, has worked to counter that, turning Clemson into that most dangerous of all animals – a disrespected champion. Swinney has, as all great coaches do, leveraged that disrespect into fuel, going so far as to claim the College Football Playoff committee was looking for reasons to leave his Tigers out of the top four.
All of this year’s playoff teams are capable of winning it – even Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma Sooners, the one team that’s a decided underdog here despite having a Heisman finalist of its own in Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts. But it looks like everything this year – the under-the-radar regular season, the hype surrounding LSU and Ohio State, Lawrence’s omission from the Heisman ceremony, his team’s relative health, the absence of Alabama – has played right into Dabo’s hands.
That’s why the pick here is Clemson over LSU in a battle of Tigers in the national championship game, starting the argument for Swinney as one of the best coaches ever.
(Photo by VCG via nunesmagician.com)
Categories: College football
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