SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For much of its 147 depraved and irresistible years, college football has majored in snootiness, with a batch of royalty lording over a resentful peasantry and the term “blue-blood programs” acceptable in chitchat. So for three loud and lavish years with a four-team playoff concept, college football has, of course, hurriedly found something you might call — yep — College Football Playoff royalty.
Three programs have hogged seven of the first 12 playoff spots in a sport with 65 upper-crust snobs among 128 eligibles. If a casual viewer finds a tinge of rerun in this semifinal doubleheader of No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl and No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State here in the Fiesta Bowl, that person has not overdone the egg nog.
Alabama (13-0) has made all three playoffs, as if a playoff without the Crimson Tide might violate some kind of zoning ordinance or invite comeuppance from Bear Bryant above. Ohio State (11-1) has made two and came just a smidge in 2015 from all three. In a sport in which power seems to concentrate and two coaches have won eight national titles at four schools in the past 13 seasons, those two, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, coach Alabama and Ohio State, both long since wreaking misery on their footballing neighbors.
If there’s a revelation this era, it’s Clemson (12-1), which has made the past two playoffs as an emblem that it licked the hard, hard art of self-redefinition. A program that won the 1981 national title but long seemed forever 7-6 or 9-4 or whatever has spent the past two seasons going 26-2 to join the cool kids. Its mid-2010s story brims with a charismatic quarterback, a charismatic head coach and a loathed three-syllable non-word.
“I used to always tell my mom, ‘Hey, I’m going to Florida. I’m going to play for Urban Meyer and be like [Tim] Tebow,’ ” Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said this week, the royal paths crisscrossing. He didn’t go to Florida, because Meyer wasn’t there anymore, and while Meyer wasn’t coaching, Watson and Clemson were bonding.
“The overall past few years have just been awesome,” Watson said . He has dazzled in a national championship game (here this past January, against Alabama) with 405 yards on 30-for-47 passing and 73 more yards rushing. He’s a figure so established that while his 15 interceptions this season sow concern, his 37 touchdown passes and incalculable leadership sow enough Heisman Trophy votes to pile a second-place finish atop a third.
He has been a foremost final editor in Coach Dabo Swinney’s mission to change the meaning of “Clemson.” Revisions had been underway for five-plus years before Watson — 9-5, 6-7, 10-4, 11-2, 11-2 — and already had intersected with real royalty.
In the 2014 Orange Bowl, the Tigers claimed a 40-35 win over Meyer’s Ohio State just two years after their 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, and Swinney told of where the paths meet for real. “And five years ago I signed 12 guys,” he said that night, “and I really didn’t have much of a résumé as a head coach. It wasn’t very sexy to come to Clemson. But we had a plan, a vision, a hope and a belief, and these guys believed, starting with this guy right here, Tajh Boyd [Watson’s predecessor at quarterback].
“I sat in his house at his kitchen table in Virginia, and Ohio State, [then-coach] Jim Tressel was, I think, in the back yard, and [then-Oregon coach Mike] Bellotti was in the front yard waiting for me to leave. And I sat there, and I told him, I said, ‘Tajh, here’s the plan. If you believe me, we’ll change Clemson. We’ll change it. It’s not going to be easy. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we will change Clemson.”
On Oct. 13, 2008, Swinney had succeeded his boss, Tommy Bowden, who had nine-plus non-losing seasons but no hump clearance. A receivers coach who had caught seven passes for Alabama from 1990 to 1992, Swinney began as an interim with a way with people. The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., listed him among 12 possibles for the permanent job — “A good recruiter and position coach who knows his way around the ACC” — with the drawback, “Usually a red flag should go up if you are the only one who wants a guy as a head coach.”
He began with qualities offensive coordinator Jeff Scott noted this week: an authenticity, “the importance of instilling an attitude of belief among your players” and “a great ability to kind of read the players, see where they are and find ways that are very real to inspire them to play their best.”
“You understand going in,” Swinney said this week, “that you’re going to have to build it one day at a time, one win at a time, one loss at a time, one offseason at a time, one recruiting class at a time. If you’re committed and you do things the right way, then eventually you’ll kind of blossom. My message to the first team that I had kind of listed all the so-called problems at Clemson and things that hadn’t been done. I kind of listed ’em all. And I was like, ‘Look, these are walls around the program, and the only way we can change that on the outside is by what we do on the inside. This is what matters. It’s how we think. It’s how we prepare. It’s how we practice. These are the things that we control. And if we will stay locked in on that, then eventually we’ll blossom on the outside.”
Senior center Jay Guillermo said the team watched a video this week showing the 25-24 win over LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl, that win over Ohio State, the routs of blue-blood Oklahoma in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl (40-6) and 2015 Orange Bowl national semifinal (37-17). “They had little clips of [Swinney’s] speeches and stuff,” Guillermo said, “to where we wanted to be a top-25 team, and then we wanted to be a top-15 team and top-10 and top-five. Now we’re at that point to where we can see the top of the mountain.”
To listen to senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, they whittled away at one other blockage, a weird one, a word that’s technically not a word. “You know, there was the word ‘Clemsoning,’ ” Watkins said this week. “You know that.”
Yes. It sort of meant the capacity to wring disappointment from hope, and its usage from a reporter in 2015 wrung a postgame rant from Swinney.
Watkins: “That really hurt, you know. People used to say that all the time. We played in tough games, you know, but people didn’t take that into mind. We got tired of that. People didn’t respect us. In order to be respected, you’ve got to earn it, so that’s kind of the mind-set we have.”
The loathed word “Clemsoning” helped?
“Most definitely,” Watkins said.
Perhaps now, he agreed, they might excavate the word, slap it on signage and claim, with evidence, that it means something about royalty.