ARLINGTON, TEXAS — For the most part the only people who don’t like Dabo Swinney are people who don’t like some of the people who like Dabo Swinney.
Because how can you not like the cut of a personable 49-year-old burst of enthusiasm who has led Clemson to a 54-4 record over a four-year College Football Playoff run?
The Tigers at the Cotton Bowl played their A-game during a week of B-sample distractions.
A 30-3 clobbering of Notre Dame on Saturday at AT&T Stadium was another playoff semifinal gem, so similar to the 31-0 win over Ohio State at the Fiesta Bowl in 2016 and so likely to get overlooked in the shadow of what’s next.
But whatever happens Jan. 7 at the national championship game in Santa Clara, behold the masterpiece.
Cotton Bowl consistency was the abridged version of an undefeated regular season.
Or the last half-decade, which includes the 2016 national title.
• Daily focus.
• Practice habits.
• The culture of the program.
“Our daily structure prepares us for this moment,” Swinney said. “I always tell (the team), ‘We’re built for this.’”
It sounds so simple.
It’s harder than ignoring fresh pies during the holidays.
“I will say this: We need to coach better,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said after the more experienced playoff team jammed the new guys. “We learned a lot from this game.”
Clemson gained knowledge on the journey from knocking on the door of elite status to becoming Alabama’s postseason dance partner.
Swinney’s program management skills were evident in big, little and sensitive ways from kickoff to trophy hoisting Saturday.
There was Trevor Lawrence, the freshman quarterback Swinney elevated to starter in late September, slicing up Notre Dame’s defense.
Nolan Turner, the backup safety whose interception set up Clemson’s final touchdown? That’s the kid whose late father Kevin Turner, Swinney’s former Alabama teammate, died of ALS before Swinney could give a scholarship to a player whose next-best offer was Alabama-Birmingham.
Like Turner, Justyn Ross, he of the 148 receiving yards and two touchdowns, is from Alabama. Ross had plenty of offers, including one from Nick Saban.
Except for old, reliable Hunter Renfrow, all of Clemson’s key playmakers in Texas were freshmen and sophomores.
Weak ACC, Clemson strength
Swinney and Co. turned a weak ACC schedule into a positive, getting valuable snaps for second-team players who keep contributing. Notre Dame, by far the best team on Clemson’s schedule, got the same long look at backup quarterback Chase Brice as lesser teams got this season.
Clemson scored 10 points off three turnovers.
“Notre Dame is a really good team,” All-American defensive end Christian Wilkins said. “If you would have asked me at the beginning of the game how many points I thought we would give up I definitely would not have said only three.”
The defense pitched in to tie a season-high (Louisville) with six sacks.
“Just an amazing performance,” Swinney said. “Dominant performance. We had some adversity but these guys stepped up and did an awesome job.”
Life as a B sample
Clemson will miss Dexter Lawrence in Santa Clara. Hopefully, the school will be transparent about details of its investigation into how a star defensive tackle tested positive (and so did his B sample) for the banned substance Ostarine.
But with Albert Huggins and others plugging holes the Tigers held Notre Dame to a paltry 2.5 yards per rush.
Ultimately, life is just one long B sample, the hope that things that start wrong turn out right. The key is how you handle the adversity.
How that “daily focus” and “culture” translates to success.
Swinney, headed to a third national championship game in four years with an evolving cast, is a master preparation chef, whether you like his fans or not.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff