Clemson linebacker Travis Blanks remembers sitting in Nick Saban’s office at Alabama, receiving a scholarship offer “like it was yesterday.”
Tight end Jordan Leggett grew up a Florida fan. Center Jay Guillermo was raised in Tennessee, prime SEC country. Offensive guard Eric Mac Lain’s grandmother went to Alabama and is still a huge fan of the Crimson Tide.
Heading into Monday’s 8:30 p.m. national title game against No. 2 Alabama (13-1), a host of other No. 1 Tigers (14-0) were recruited by schools all over the SEC — and many took visits to Tuscaloosa during their process. For one reason or another, though, they chose a different route.
“You always hear about the SEC being the top conference in college football and nobody compares to it and stuff like that, but just going through the recruiting process, my whole objective was to not go to the SEC,” Leggett said. “I wanted to go to the best school in the ACC, and that’s why I ended up here. And with the ACC being the underdogs, I basically came here to be an underdog.”
Before Clemson’s players were, well, players, they were simply fans of college football. Quarterback Deshaun Watson grew up less than an hour from the home of the Georgia Bulldogs and heard the trumpeting of the SEC long before he ever suited up the Tigers.
“I saw it every Saturday,” Watson said. “They’re very good. Great teams, best players in the country. I wasn’t the recruit that had to go to the SEC to make it. I was just open to everyone. I thought there were great teams in every conference.”
Not all kids dream of playing for the Crimson Tide or Volunteers or Bayou Bengals. Guillermo is from Maryville, Tennessee, a suburb of Knoxville, but he was putting on a much darker shade of orange when playing backyard football as a youngster.
“The SEC has always been a powerhouse for football,” Guillermo said. “Growing up watching it, it’s kind of ingrained in your mind, even if you’re just a college football fan, that the SEC is it. I think it’s going to be a good challenge going up against the powerhouse in the SEC.”
Leggett, a Navarre, Florida, native, said the running joke around his high school was that if you signed with the Crimson Tide, you wouldn’t play until your redshirt senior season.
“People want to play against SEC talent,” said freshman tackle Mitch Hyatt, a 5-star lineman who was heavily recruited by Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn. “A lot of people believe that the talent in the SEC is greater than any other conference. It’s a viewpoint. Once you get out on the field and start playing you realize they’re all similar.”
But they all know the perception: The SEC is the best conference in the country. Coaches across the league sell that to the top recruits in the country every day. The ACC’s current television deal isn’t close to what SEC’s own network is pulling in. Alabama, and many of the teams it faces, are media darlings. But Blanks said perception and reality don’t always match.
“For most people, perception is reality, and what most people perceive is what’s real for them, but I think the ACC is every bit as good as the SEC,” Blanks said. “We can compete with any school in America. We’ve proved that time and time again. I think all that perception is all just bologna.
“I think it’s slowly starting to change, but you still can’t take away from the fact that Alabama has played in four national championships in the last seven years. We have to continue to be consistent if we want to gain that respect.”
There’s no denying the facts: The SEC had a run of seven consecutive national champions. That streak ended with the last BCS title game, when Florida State knocked off Auburn in 2013. Last year, Alabama was the lone SEC school to make the first ever playoff, but Ohio State bounced the Tide in the Sugar Bowl’s semifinal.
Alabama is the school to which every team in the league — and many across the entire country — is measured.
“It gives us a chance in the ACC to really prove we’re a brand,” said Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, who grew up in Loganville, Ga., which is between Athens and Atlanta. “We know if we prepare well and practice well, we can take on anybody.”
Despite only playing Alabama once since 1975, Clemson is no stranger to facing SEC teams. Since Swinney took over as the interim head coach halfway through the 2008 season, the Tigers are 8-7 against SEC schools. That includes a five-game losing skid in the annual rivalry with South Carolina from 2009-2013.
The Tigers are 2-1 against Auburn during this stretch, and they did beat LSU 25-24 in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl in one of the most defining wins of the Swinney era. Clemson then opened 2013 with a thrilling 38-35 victory over Georgia in Death Valley before losing 45-21 in Athens to begin the 2014 season.