Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had nearly wrapped up a summertime appearance when someone asked if the Tigers could win a national championship.
“No doubt about it,” Watson said with a grin. “15-0.”
Fifteen? Are there even that many games?
In the College Football Playoff era, the Tigers are trying to break new ground. Watson and the top-ranked Tigers are trying to make history as the first undefeated team with 15 wins against No. 2 Alabama on Monday night, hoping to finish off a goal set down as the ultimate target long ago.
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Sure, there have been other undefeated teams. Clemson’s last national championship team in 1981 finished with a 12-0 record. Florida State was 14-0 in its national championship year two years ago. With the playoff in the mix, the Tigers could be the first team to reach 15-0.
The undefeated mindset was set as the team’s theme for the season before the Tigers ever stepped on the field. Swinney put 15 up on the board at an early gathering. He passed out T-shirts with “15 for 15” on the back.
“It’s 2015,” Swinney told them. “Right now, we’ve sold every ticket, but there’s only 12. We want to make them print 15 tickets.”
That part’s done. Now, it’s up to Clemson to finish off its first perfect season since the 1981 national champions.
“It was not easy to get everyone to buy into this,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “It took planning and preparation.”
Swinney regularly worked with a sports psychologist, Milt Lowder, who has consulted with Clemson athletes and coaches since 2005. Lowder said he met with Swinney at least once a week during the season, the coach sharing ideas about techniques on keeping the Tigers focused.
Lowder said none of this season’s success would’ve happened without Clemson’s steady success the past several seasons. The Tigers have won 10 or more games each of the past five years, defeating college powers LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma – twice – in bowl games.
Older players understood and accepted the work it took to win games. Without that, Lowder said, Swinney’s words would ring hollow.
So when the season began, the team forgot about the big goal. They looked at the milestone in increments. They didn’t think about 15 anymore. 2-0 became 3-0. Then 4-0, and 5-0. 6-0, then 7-0. The win column kept changing, the loss column never did.
Swinney puts it simply: “You can’t be 15-0 unless you’re 3-0.”
“You’ve got to have a process on getting there, something that you’re confident works with your team,” said Brent Walker, president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “It’s easier to do that once your players understand your commitment to them.”
The players, led by Watson, easily followed along. The sophomore had an injury-plagued first year, and was eager to show the high school promise that made him one of the country’s top prospects. He helped the younger Tigers get on board.
Watson says it was an easy sell. To those holdouts, Watson insisted he came to Clemson to win championships and needed everyone to have that focus.
“It’s about believing in each other,” he said. “That’s what we do around here.”