CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney arrived in New Orleans for the first time in 25 years this past spring. His flight landed, he stepped off of the plane that took him to the Superdome and then started to take some photos.
He was with former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was being honored as the winner of the 2016 Manning Award, given to college football's best quarterback. As he took in the Superdome for the first time since he won a national championship as an Alabama player there in 1992, Swinney knew he could use the pictures for later.
"I realized that was one of the (2017) (College Football) Playoff sites," Clemson's head coach said. "So I took a couple of pictures and I just kind of turned it into a reconnaissance trip. So I had a little fun when we were in spring practice.
"I kind of told the guys, 'Hey, I've checked (the Superdome) out, and if we do what I think we can do, this is where we might have a chance to get to.'"
This was months ago — long before Kelly Bryant took a snap as the Tigers' new quarterback with questions at every juncture, long before Clemson started its season against Kent State in September. And yet Swinney's gut was right.
The Tigers are headed to the Superdome next month. The College Football Playoff committee rewarded Swinney's bunch Sunday with this year's No. 1 seed in the playoff, this after the Tigers emphatically put the finishing touch on their resume with a 38-3 win over Miami in the ACC Championship on Saturday night.
On New Year's Day, Clemson will meet No. 4 Alabama, a team the committee determined worthy over two-loss conference champion Ohio State.
"It's pretty cool to see it come to fruition, and I'm just excited to be there," Swinney said. "Obviously, (we're) excited to play Alabama again. It just doesn't get any better than that."
Indeed, of all the matchups in this year's postseason, the marquee showdown will be between No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Alabama, two teams that are no strangers to each other given their recent history. The Sugar Bowl will mark the third time in as many years the two teams have met in the playoff, but the first time they will play each other in the semifinal. Alabama beat Clemson in the 2015 national championship for the trophy two years ago. Clemson turned the tables a year later behind Watson and Hunter Renfrow to win the Tigers' second-ever title. A month from now, when they meet again, it will be two of the sports' most prominent programs clashing for a chance to play in the championship against either No. 2 Oklahoma or No. 3 Georgia. It will feature two of the best coaches in college football, Nick Saban and Swinney, who are both well aware of the challenges this particular semifinal presents.
"This will be by far the best team that we’ve played all year, and we’ll certainly need to play our best to have any kind of chance to be successful in the game," Saban said.
"I mean, Alabama, pretty much everybody who plays Alabama is probably going to be an underdog," Swinney followed. "We're going to get ready and do what we do."
Clemson opened as a two-point underdog despite being the nation's top team heading into a matchup with an Alabama group that lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Alabama got in over Ohio State, which made a late case by winning the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin on Saturday night, but who did not look as favorable to the committee when it came down to essentially an eye test. The Crimson Tide, naturally, are looking to advance and prove to the committee its decision was the right one. Clemson is trying to win its second title in as many years. They each have a month to prepare.
"Clemson's a really good team. They've got a great team," Saban said.
"We’ve obviously played each other last two years," Swinney later added. "It’s come down to a few plays, and I don’t doubt this one will be the same."