It’s a question of perception as much as performance: Is Clemson officially one of the big boys yet?
It’s located in a pocket of South Carolina that seldom is mentioned among the popular crossroads of the college game. It plays in a sometimes overlooked conference – especially whenever FSU isn’t viable. And while it is rightfully proud of its traditions and lore, Clemson has but the one national championship. And that has accumulated 35 years of dust.
Suwanee’s Mitch Hyatt, the Tigers' sophomore left tackle, addressed some of the confusion about where Clemson stands, even in comparison to itself. Hyatt’s uncle, Dan Benish, was a starting defensive lineman on the 1981 championship team. “It’s like the best time now, back-to-back years (going to the playoffs), just crazy,” said Hyatt.
Then thinking back to his uncle’s days, he amended, “That was the best time. Now it’s like getting back to that. It’s awesome.”
Not a horrible chore, really, ranking the best of times.
Back in the final four for a second consecutive year – facing one of the elites in Ohio State in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, hoping to get another shot in the final against lordly Alabama – Clemson is ready to make the argument that it deserves a promotion. From charming interloper to one of the truly consistent powerhouses.
“Our status as far as being an elite program is validated. I don’t know how we can validate it any more,” the Tigers never shy coach, Dabo Swinney, said last week.
You didn’t expect him to say, “Nah, we’re just a humble bunch of farmhands that somehow got invited to the cotillion,” did you?
Winning a title sometime before this decade is out would a go a long way toward clarifying the matter. The Tigers were oh-so close last season, taking Bama to the last gasp before losing 45-40.
“It comes down to a couple plays. It’s going to happen, hopefully it’s this year,” Swinney said. “We’re going to win the national championship. Clemson will win multiple national championships as we move forward here. History is going to tell the tale. Regardless of if I’m here or not, it’s going to happen.”
OK, then, that’s been established.
For Clemson to keep up with its coach’s grand vision it must show itself capable of thriving beyond the shelf life of one dynamic player who happened to fall its way from Gainesville, quarterback Deshaun Watson. And there is the strong belief around the program that Watson’s impact will be felt long after he has been given the keys to an NFL offense.
There is something to be said for being undervalued, to having almost, but not quite, arrived. Just listen to Watson, who said he perpetually plays with a chip on his shoulder, “to prove I’m the best player in the country and Clemson is the best team in the country.”
But the Tigers ache to be recognized on a national scale. And they are owed that much seeing how only Alabama has been more of a constant here in the beginning of the playoff era.
Maybe Clemson never will be “storied.” That’s where the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, USC and Notre Dame live, no matter the record of the moment. There’s no breaking that glass ceiling of perception. But it would be quite pleased if you would consider it one of the big boys for at least a few weeks more.