It has been 25 years, but Dabo Swinney is back in the Sugar Bowl.
Swinney, who is in his ninth season as head coach at Clemson, made his Sugar Bowl debut while a player at Alabama in 1992. The Crimson Tide upset Miami to win the national title that season.
“We’re staying at the same hotel, practicing at the same site (Tulane Stadium),” Swinney said.
And, ironically, Clemson is playing Swinney’s alma mater for the right to advance to a third consecutive national championship game.
Alabama defeated Clemson 45-41 two years ago, but Swinney’s team gained a measure of revenge with a 35-31 victory against the Crimson Tide last year.
The Tigers are the No. 1 seed this time while Alabama is No. 4, but the game is expected to be close once again; in fact, Alabama is a three-point favorite.
“This will be a dandy, that’s for sure,” Swinney said.
Swinney’s primary goal when he assumed the reins of Clemson’s program nine years ago was to turn the school into a consistent challenger for national honors, and he’s done just that. The Tigers have posted a school-record seven consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories and will take a 12-1 record into the Sugar Bowl.
Swinney credits Alabama for setting a lofty standard.
“I wanted to build a program that could embrace competing against the best,” Swinney said. “Alabama has been the best, no doubt about it.
“The first time we competed against them it was it was something I was really excited about. How are you going to measure up? We lost that first game (against Alabama), but I felt like our brand grew. We really believed we could win the game. Coming out of that game we knew we were good enough.”
This year’s game shapes up as a defensive battle. Clemson has four defensive players who earned All-America honors while Alabama had two, so it’s no surprise that the Tigers and Crimson Tide rank among the Top 10 in 26 defensive categories combined.
The outcome, however, may hinge on which quarterback can inflict the most damage — Clemson junior Kelly Bryant or Alabama sophomore Jalen Hurts. Both are threats in the running game, but Bryant gets the edge in the passing game, primarily because he’s blessed with a plethora of playmaking receivers.
While Alabama’s players appear to be taking a workmanlike approach to Monday’s game in New Orleans’ Superdome, the Tigers seem to be following Swinney’s lead and taking a more fun-loving attitude into the game.
“It’ll be a great moment, but it’s really the journey that I try to really enjoy,” Swinney said.
“This could be the last week to be with this team. Hopefully we can earn one more bus ride, pregame meal and all that stuff, but you’ve got to earn that. That’s what it comes down to, but I want them to enjoy it, have some fun, be able to look back on their time.
“We always say the fun’s in the winning. It comes down to that, but I don’t think you have to be miserable to do that in the process. Have some fun. Enjoy it.”
NOTES: DE Clelin Ferrell is going to be a mismatch against just about any offensive tackle, but particularly if he goes up against Alabama sophomore Matt Womack on a regular basis. Ferrell has 17 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and 12 quarterback pressures. … WR Hunter Renfrow may not look the part at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, but he continually comes up big against Alabama. The junior has 17 receptions for 180 yards and four touchdowns in the Tigers’ two national championship games against the Crimson Tide, including the game-winning touchdown with one second remaining last January in Clemson’s 35-31 victory. … OG Taylor Hearn, a third-team All-ACC selection, will forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft.