NEW ORLEANS — On Tuesday, Aug. 29, at exactly 11 a.m., Dabo Swinney walked inside of Clemson’s Allen N. Reeves Football Complex grinning for his first official press conference of the regular season. Eighty-one seconds into his opening statement, he referenced the obvious: moving on from Clemson’s 2016 national championship.
“We’ve been working on this season and this part of the journey since last January,” he said.
On Tuesday, Oct. 1, at exactly 11:16 a.m., he offered this:
“I’ve had several teams that I felt like were good enough (to win a national title). Not just last year and the year before ... I think this team is a really good football team. I think we’ve still got a long way to go, but I like the mindset.”
All season long — since the very first day Clemson hit the practice field and the very moment Kelly Bryant was named the starter on Aug. 21 — Swinney maintained his 2017 Clemson team did not have to win a national championship in order to be validated, but that he felt good about his personnel.
This group, he said, would write its own narrative. The journey came to a close for No. 1 Clemson on Monday night in New Orleans, where No. 4 Alabama dominated the Tigers, 24-6, in the Sugar Bowl.
It will be the Crimson Tide moving onto the national championship game for a date with No. 3 Georgia in what is now an all-SEC title game. When it was all said and done after midnight, Bryant walked to midfield, cameras in his face, looking for Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts to congratulate him amid the chaos. Alabama players celebrated and fist-pumped.
"This game won’t take credit away from the season that we had ... it was an incredible experience," a subdued Bryant said afterward at his locker. "(This season was) special. Very special. Like I said, not many people picked us to be here. We got a lot of depth from our young guys over the course of the season. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back on both sides of the ball, so having this experience, we know what it looks like."
Alabama set the tone early when its thunderous defense forced Clemson to punt on each of its three opening drives and the Crimson Tide hit a 24-yard field goal to go ahead 3-0 with about five minutes left in the first quarter. Moments later, Hurts connected with wide receiver Calvin Ridley on a 12-yard score and the lead extended to 10-0.
While Clemson kicker Alex Spence had the best game of his career — nailing field goals of 42 and 44 yard field goals — the Clemson offense saw a 10-6 deficit grow to 24-6 after a pair of costly Bryant interceptions led to two Alabama touchdowns.
Before Monday, Bryant had just six picks all season. Against Alabama, he had two in consecutive possessions. His first was intercepted by 308-pound nose guard Da’Ron Payne, who returned it 21 yards and then caught a one-yard pass from Hurts for a score. The second came moments later when Mack Wilson made the score 24-6 with an 18-yard pick-six.
The Tigers also had zero first downs, zero third-down conversions and negative seven yards after the first 15 minutes. Kelly Bryant was sacked five times throughout the night behind a head-scratching offensive line performance and Clemson ran for just 64 yards. Hunter Renfrow, the redshirt junior wide receiver who was Clemson's hero this time last year, said the Tigers lacked the appropriate mindset and did not show up ready to play. Tavien Feaster, the sophomore running back, echoed that sentiment.
"We weren’t all together, we weren’t one heartbeat tonight," Feaster said. "It’s a team effort. Maybe we were overconfident just because of what happened last year but it is what it is."
Moving forward, Clemson’s offseason begins now, meaning some players will have to make NFL decisions and others will return to campus for a new semester and offseason workouts. Junior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins was the most visibly upset Clemson player in the locker room and he spoke through tears. A few moments after the initial chaos subsided, Dabo Swinney entered the locker room after his press conference and individually went up to several of his players to share a private moment together. He hugged them all and offered words of encouragement as they got dressed to board a flight home for one final time this season.
"I'm very thankful — or hurt. It's a very disappointed locker room. But I'm very thankful for our seniors," Swinney said. "This is a team — nobody picked us to be here this year. This is a team that went to their third playoff in a row, their third ACC Championship in a row. They won 50 games in their career, 40 in the last three years. So I'm very thankful for my seniors. It didn't end the way I wanted it to or the way they wanted it to, but this is a great group of young men that I'm going to miss deeply. But we will bounce back. We will learn from it. For us it's always about what is next."