In 2015, Clemson entered postseason play undefeated. This year, the Tigers have one loss.
In 2015, Clemson came from outside the top 10 to shock many and make the College Football Playoff. This year, most prognosticators picked the Tigers to return to the playoff.
In 2015, Clemson played four games prior to the postseason that were decided by a touchdown or less. This year, the Tigers have played seven.
Despite all of that, Clemson’s 2016 run to the final four is more impressive than the one the Tigers went on a year ago.
From the opening week of this season it was apparent Clemson would get every team’s best effort. Like an Alabama, or Ohio State, Clemson was a game circled on everyone’s schedule.
“Last year, nobody really expected us to do what we did,” Tigers senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins said. “Coach (Dabo) Swinney’s motto this year was ‘Embrace the target.’ Everybody’s looking to take us down, so we’ve got to embrace it. We got everybody’s best shot this year.”
Clemson’s offense was expected to challenge NCAA records, and while the Tigers rounded into shape toward the end of the year, Deshaun Watson and company got off to a slow start.
Part of the struggles were because of turnovers and dropped passes, but Clemson also wasn’t living up to expectations because defensive coordinators spent the offseason studying how to slow down the Tigers.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said on multiple occasions teams were scheming Clemson differently than what he had seen on film.
Swinney also had to finding new motivational tactics as the Tigers were no longer the underdogs.
Swinney said there’s no doubt what Clemson did in getting back to the playoff was more difficult than the Tigers making it this far a year ago.
“To sustain success is very difficult. Sometimes people can get complacent and things like that. To maintain the sense of urgency, the standard of excellence, the daily commitment, and pay the price all over again, that speaks to the culture that we have in place,” Swinney said. “Last year, we were kind of America’s team probably, if you will. You could feel a lot of energy. A lot of people pulling for the Clemson Tigers.”
Through all of the challenges in 2016, Clemson is back playing for a chance to win a national title.
Now that the Tigers have gotten this far, they believe they are better prepared to win it all.
“This team has a different mindset, a different perspective, because they’ve been through that journey,” Swinney said.