Just desserts: Clemson-Alabama desert duel

Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware celebrates his 47-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers' 40-6 victory over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 29, 2014 in Orlando. (Clemson athletic communications)

Clemson lost well-compensated offensive coordinator Chad Morris just after the 2014 regular season. Ten players from its 2014 defense are in the NFL. The Tigers lost Mike Williams, their best receiver, to a season-ending neck injury in the first quarter of the first game this season.

So do you think they’re worried that Oklahoma is a 2.5-point favorite in the Orange Bowl just because the Sooners since their 40-6 debacle against Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl last December added Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield at quarterback, whiz-kid strategist Lincoln Riley as offensive coordinator and finished the season on a roll?

An underdog role is just what Dabo Swinney ordered with his celebratory pizza Sunday, whether the Clemson head coach says so or not.

“Shoot, with these four teams in this final four, you’re splitting hairs,” Swinney said Sunday during an Orange Bowl telephone news conference. “Whoever is 1-2, it doesn’t matter. All these teams are capable of winning on any given day. That’s why we’re in the final four.”

True, the two-year-old playoff concept worked this time without a hitch: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl with the winners headed for Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 11.

And no serious complaints from Ohio State, Stanford or that nutty Dr. Pepper stadium vendor dude who invented the whole thing.

Of course, the old Bowl Championship Series system would have worked just fine, Clemson vs. Alabama.

But this way the TV networks get a little more drama and the players get more bowl gifts before we get on to the inevitable duel in the desert.

A Clemson-Alabama clash would have more plot lines than a big-budget movie with a Christmas release date.

SEC vs. ACC.

Swinney vs. his alma mater.

The likely Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, vs. the likely runner-up, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

How much longer in Tuscaloosa for Nick Saban?

Is Alabama the only job Swinney would leave Clemson for?

Of course, the worst thing about all this is the emotional toll and travel costs for fans.

But support?

Clemson drew more people for Swinney’s Death Valley pizza party Sunday than some ACC teams get to show up for home games.

The Tigers obviously had lots of support on the College Football Playoff committee; they were No. 1 from wire-to-wire for six weeks. Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich is on the committee but was eliminated from all conversations regarding Clemson, which was just about anything to do with the top four teams and venue selections.

How was it?

“Lonely,” Radakovich said.

But a good lonely.

Unlike the 2014 playoff controversy involving selection of Ohio State over TCU or Baylor, 2015 was coffee and donuts for the committee. They got four good teams, and the right teams.

Clemson hasn’t been an underdog since last December in Orlando. Oklahoma was favored by 6 going into the Russell Athletic Bowl.

The Tigers won without Watson, who is 17-1 as a starter.

All they need now is a little rest after 10 straight games without a bye week.

“We were pretty healthy as far as just the injury standpoint but certainly I’d be foolish to think that a 10-game stretch doesn’t take a little bit of a toll,” Swinney said. “You’re getting everybody’s A-game every single week.

“Five of our last seven were on the road. That’s a big part of it, too. Your routine is just different, with traveling and all the type of stuff, getting home late at night. It’s just good to give these guys a break.”

Oklahoma will get a rested No. 1 underdog, a formidable mix likely to send Clemson down a bright desert highway into deepest Arizona.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff