TAMPA, Fla. | Dabo Swinney was asked this week if his Clemson football team could recover from the loss to South Carolina in time to play Georgia Tech for tonight's ACC championship.
Swinney laughed. He might as well have said, "get real." College football - any sport, really - is all about championships. Even rival games take a back seat to championship games because it is all about the ring.
Swinney and his team will never admit it, nor will Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and his team. But it was virtually impossible for either Clemson or Georgia Tech to keep their undivided attention on their rivals a week ago.
Both coaches and teams were pointing toward tonight. It's only natural.
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No one will care that Clemson lost to USC if the Tigers win the ACC championship and play in the Orange Bowl. No one is going to care that Georgia Tech lost to Georgia if the Yellow Jackets win the ACC championship and play in the Orange Bowl.
Ten, 20, 30 years from now, there will not be an asterisk in the record books next to either Clemson's or Georgia Tech's championship to signify they lost to their rival.
"You've got to move on. You've got a championship game (to play)," Swinney said. "This is what you play for. This is postseason play. When they crown the Super Bowl champion, they don't say, 'Well, they won the Super Bowl, but dadgummit, they lost to the Packers, their rival.' They don't say that. They don't say, 'They won it all, but they were 17-4, or whatever.'
"Nobody cares. It's all about winning and being the champion. So, for these guys, this is what you're playing for. Just like if you go undefeated and you lose (the championship game). Well, nobody cares that you went undefeated. Nobody wants to talk about that. You lost the championship."
Swinney referenced to the ACC's slogan for Saturday's title game, the one that appears on billboards around Tampa and on the game's ticket: 12 Teams. Two Divisions. One Champion.
Today's game, Swinney said, is all that counts.
"You can't let one game determine your happiness as far as being excited about playing in a championship game," Swinney said. "You only get so many opportunities to play for a championship. When it's all said and done, nobody really cares what your record is. There's one champion.
"We're disappointed we didn't win our rival games, but both teams have to re-focus because this is what you start the season wanting to do, to be the champion of your conference."
Steve Spurrier talked recently about playing in championship games, and the importance of those games to players, coaches and fans. He brought up his 1995 Florida team was the first in school history to go 12-0, winning the regular season and SEC championship.
Then Florida was shellacked by Nebraska in the national championship game, 62-24. Spurrier said throughout the offseason Florida fans only wanted to talk about the title-game loss. Most had forgotten the spectacular regular season.
"The two are not mutually inclusive," Georgia Tech's Johnson said of the rival game and the championship game.
If you want a South Carolina example of the importance of championships, consider the Gamecocks' 1969 ACC title team. The team is recognized with a huge sign at Williams-Brice Stadium.
USC and its fans forever remember that team as a champion. No one remembers the Gamecocks were 7-4 and did not defeat a single team with a winning record. Who cares? They went 6-0 in the conference.
Similarly, no one cares that the National League champion New York Mets squeaked into the playoffs in 1973 with a so-so 82-79 record.
No one cares that the Florida Marlins were World Series champions in 1997 and 2003, but could not win the National League East.
No one cares that the 1991 national champion Duke basketball team lost the ACC tournament championship game to North Carolina.
No one cares that Villanova could not win the Big East championship and was a No. 9 seed en route to the 1985 NCAA basketball championship.
No one cares that Florida State received a virtual free ticket to the national championship football game in the 1990s because it played in a weak conferences and did not have to win a league championship game to get there.
No one cares that Oakland in 1980, Denver in 1997, Baltimore in 2000, Pittsburgh in 2005 and the New York Giants in 2007 won Super Bowls after entering the playoffs as wild card teams.
The only thing that matters for Clemson and Georgia Tech is today's championship game. Forget records and rivalries. It's all about the ring.