Clemson has a banner hanging in its indoor practice facility that reads “College Football Playoff National Finalist 2016.”
The banner was put up to honor the Tigers’ impressive run to the national title game last season, which included a 14-0 start, but it instead serves as a constant reminder to Clemson’s players of what could have been.
“We’re the first runner-up. The first loser,” Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware said following Saturday’s shellacking of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. “That being smack-dab in our face every day, it’s just a great reminder that we’ve got to go out there and work and grind and at the end of the day finish. We didn’t do that last year.”
Last year’s title game, which the Tigers lost 45-40, was Clemson’s for the taking. Clemson led 24-21 entering the fourth quarter before a surprise onside kick and kickoff return for a touchdown allowed Alabama to seize control.
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The Tigers also allowed Alabama tight end O.J. Howard to run free all evening as he finished with 208 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions. Players have relived the big moments from the showdown in their heads over and over since last season ended.
“The onside kick, the kickoff return, we had a couple of guys that busted, their tight end made a couple of big plays. ... If you take like two of those plays away, we have a chance to win,” senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins said.
While Clemson players have not forgotten about the miscues in last year’s title game, they have not dwelled on them either. Instead, the Tigers used the loss as motivation all offseason and throughout 2016.
“We’ve been thinking about that game all year,” Boulware said. “The 5:30 in the morning grinding in February, the winter workouts, in spring ball, fall camp, summer workouts. That game has definitely resonated with us every day. It’s something I haven’t forgot about.”
Clemson knew all season long that if it took care of business it would likely have to go through Alabama in order to win its first national title since 1981.
After the way last season ended, the second-ranked Tigers are glad to be playing the top-ranked Crimson Tide with an opportunity for revenge.
“Washington’s obviously a great team. I have a lot of respect for them, but I think everybody on this team would much rather play Alabama, just because they went out there and smacked us around last year,” Boulware said. “We’re ready to play. We respect them. We know how talented they are … but we’re eager for Monday’s matchup.”
Despite having one loss this season as opposed to being undefeated at this time a year ago, Clemson enters this game with as much — if not more — momentum than it did last year’s title game.
The Tigers played their best game of the season Saturday night, shutting out the nation’s ninth-ranked scoring offense in a 31-0 victory over No. 3 Ohio State.
It marked the first time in Urban Meyer’s career he has been shut out and the first time Ohio State has been shut out since 1993.
One-loss Clemson is hoping to build on that and reverse roles with undefeated Alabama after the one-loss Crimson Tide knocked off unbeaten Clemson last year.
“To come out here and be able to bring things full circle, and then to have a shot at redemption so to speak with Alabama is something that not a lot of teams get the chance to do and luckily we do,” Tigers senior center Jay Guillermo said.
Senior safety Jadar Johnson added, “It definitely feels good to go back, and we want to finish this time.”
Who: Clemson (13-1) vs. Alabama (14-0)
When: 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Line: Alabama by 6.5