Clemson playing for title, and for history

Published 12:47 am Saturday, January 2, 2016

By Tim Reynolds

AP Sports Writer

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — With shiny orange confetti stuck to his sweat-soaked face as the celebration after the Orange Bowl rolled along, Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware knew the time was right to make a bold statement.

“We can be the best team ever,” Boulware shouted.

Best team ever? Well, that would be debatable.

Best record ever? That’s within Clemson’s reach.

As if playing for the national championship wasn’t enough motivation, No. 1 Clemson (14-0) will be vying for a piece of college football history as well when it meets No. 2 Alabama (13-1) in Glendale, Arizona on Jan. 11 in the title game. No FBS team has ever finished 15-0, and being the first to get there has been a goal for Clemson from the moment that the team convened for training camp last summer.

“August 3rd, when we started the season, I gave them shirts that said ‘Dream the Dream,’” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “And I said ‘15 for 15,’ with the message being let’s make them print 15 tickets this year, somehow, some way.

“My gosh, they’ve got to print a 15th ticket to see the Tigers now,” Swinney added. “It’s been a great 2015.”

If they keep the greatness going into the first game of 2016, it would be historic.

Granted, the notion of best-record-ever meaning best-team-ever won’t be unanimously accepted. The 2001 Miami Hurricanes, the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 1974 Oklahoma Sooners — among others — would probably disagree.

And only a handful of teams have even had the chance to play 15 games, with longer regular seasons, conference title games and now a four-team College Football Playoff stretching schedules out more than ever before.

Clemson doesn’t care about any of that. To the Tigers, 15-0 would be absolute.

“Having the national championship would be amazing,” Clemson offensive lineman Joe Gore said. “But never in my career, never, any sport, going back to when I was a little kid have I been undefeated. It would be such an accomplishment. If we do it, no one could ever take it away from us.”

Swinney doesn’t want them hiding from the opportunity. He’s telling his team to embrace this chance.

“When you do the common things in an uncommon way, you command the attention of the world,” Swinney said. “And this team is uncommon in everything that they do.”

Winning the national title and going 15-0 would be obviously a huge boost to the Tigers, but it would also be a major moment for the Atlantic Coast Conference as well.

The last team to go 14-0 was Florida State, which brought a national title back to the ACC in 2013. And even with what the Seminoles and Tigers have done in recent years, the ACC still believes it doesn’t get the level of respect that’s afforded to some of the other leagues — namely the Southeastern Conference, which just happens to be providing Clemson’s final obstacle this season in Alabama.

“Any time you have a team from your league in the national championship game, it’s a great thing,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. “You can’t ask for a whole lot more than that. And any time you have a team that could accomplish a first of that magnitude, it’s truly something special. So our whole league will be pulling for them.”

The Tigers’ numbers are absurd, and certainly help prepare their case for greatness.

They’re 32 passing yards away from becoming the ninth team to manage 4,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards in the same season. They’ve outgained opponents by 2,946 yards — roughly 1.7 miles — this season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is the third player in FBS history with 3,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same year, and he’s doing that even while running back Wayne Gallman set a school record for rushing as well.

“They were the team that we thought they were,” Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper said. “They’re a great team. They have a Heisman-type quarterback, they’ve got a running back who’s very underappreciated, their defense is very underappreciated.”

Added Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops: “They’re not the No. 1 team in the country for no reason.”

And now comes a chance to finish the job, finish the dream that Swinney planted the seeds for at that first training camp meeting. And the Tigers are embracing the stakes.

“Going 15-0, it would mean we’re the best ever,” linebacker Travis Blanks said. “No one’s ever done it. So we would be the best ever. It’s just that simple.”