SUNSET — Robbie Caldwell laments the generational hazards of trying to inspire today’s college students.
“It’s hard,” Clemson’s 64-year-old offensive line coach said Tuesday at head coach Dabo Swinney’s annual media golf outing. “They don’t know John Wayne. They don’t know Muhammad Ali. They don’t know George Foreman. They do know the George Foreman grill.”
But getting the Tigers ready for the 2018 football season won’t require a reenactment of “The Searchers” or tales from The Thrilla in Manila.
Fresh sour Sugar Bowl memories will do the trick.
Just as Alabama coaches and players were angrier than a suitcase full of bees at this time last year, Clemson is motivated by a Tide-Tigers postseason game that went awry.
Sure, it looks like Nick Saban, Inc., had better reason to think the 2016 national title was there for the taking before Hunter Renfrow’s game-winning catch with one second remaining in Clemson’s 35-31 win in Tampa. The Crimson-colored do-over has the Tide forcing a field goal and winning in overtime because Saban-coached teams just don’t lose national title games (ask Oklahoma, Texas, LSU, Notre Dame and Georgia).
Alabama’s revenge was an emphatic 24-6 Sugar Bowl win in a College Football Playoff semifinal, setting the stage for a national championship victory over Georgia.
The Tigers see it as a blown opportunity for a second straight national title. Everyone has bought into – or never had to be sold on — Swinney’s theory that Clemson was “two plays away.”
Two plays from forcing Saban to rush freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa onto the field one game before he came out of the bullpen to beat Georgia.
Two Kelly Bryant interceptions.
Clemson was down just 10-6 in the third quarter and facing second-and-2 at its own 42 before Alabama’s 308-pound Da’Ron Payne went nuts. He returned an interception 21 yards and scored on a 1-yard reception. One snap later, Mack Wilson returned an interception for a touchdown after a pass bounced off Deon Cain.
Alabama held on to its 24-6 lead for the last 20-plus minutes.
The reality of California dreaming is that it’s Santa Clara or bust for Clemson.
If Alabama joins them at the national championship game job site in January, that’s all the better.
“I think you saw a lot of guys come back because of unfinished business,” offensive co-coordinator Tony Elliott said.
Tigers were ready for Tua
NFL draft grades also influenced the return decisions of highly-regarded 2019 prospects Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Mitch Hyatt.
But they like winning and confetti, too.
“It’s not like we have to remind them a lot,” Elliott said of the Sugar Bowl. “They know. This is a new season but we can learn from the mistakes we made, too.”
Clemson had a game-plan ready for Tagovailoa, prepared for an Alabama passing attack expected if the Tigers got a working lead and Jalen Hurts struggled.
The Bryant-led offense just never got any rhythm going offensively.
The presence of ridiculously hyped freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence means Clemson has a juicy option if Bryant looks like he did against Alabama (and in the spring game).
Quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter warns us not to count Bryant out just yet.
Bryant and Lawrence
“What I like about Kelly Bryant is every time his back is against the wall, he finds a way to shine,” Streeter said.
That doesn’t mean Lawrence won’t play a lot.
Or start very early.
“I don’t know how it’s going to end up,” Streeter said. “I’m as excited as anyone to find out.”
It’s a potent mix, a revenge theme and high-level position battles, not just at quarterback but at running back (Travis Etienne and Tavien Fester), along the defensive line, at kicker, elsewhere.
Revenge and battling were part of John Wayne scripts and Muhammad Ali fights, too. But no need to punch up old-school motivational techniques here.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff