Clemson changes the narrative

CLEMSON – Dabo Swinney had heard just about enough.

Early Sunday morning, after the jubilant orange masses had cleared from the floor of Memorial Stadium, after the sparkling JumboTron reading "Clemson 38, Georgia 35" had shut down for the night, after he'd celebrated with his team, it all came out.

He was asked what beating the No.5 Bulldogs – in concert with the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over No.9 LSU – meant for the credibility of his program, along with that of the ACC.

After all, no non-SEC team has ever beaten top-10 SEC programs in back-to-back games, a feat the Tigers accomplished Saturday night. Clemson's emotional fifth-year coach didn't want to hear it.

"I don't that," he said. "Y'all need to start writing something different. Asking different questions. The bottom line is this: this program has been as consistent as any program in college football. There have been six teams that have been ranked the last 30 weeks in a row. Only six.

How come we don't say anything about that? The only ones on the list are LSU, Alabama, Oregon, South Carolina, Stanford and Clemson. There are a lot of great programs on that list. Why not write about them? Clemson has been as consistent as anyone in the country. Other teams haven't won it all either. You're bringing up something that happened five years ago. Move on. Write a different story line."

Clemson is forcing that exact issue.

While they're far from perfect, the Tigers are proving they can hang with the nation's elite – and win.

Eight months ago, the narrative was that LSU wasn't interested in a New Year's Eve game in Atlanta a year after a national title game appearance.

Saturday night clearly mattered to the Bulldogs. They'd prepared for this team all spring and summer. They were cocky. Confident. They met Clemson at the bottom of the hill, woofing and yelling as coaches held them back.

They left somewhat humbled. Georgia outgained Clemson 545-467, but the Tigers forced two key turnovers and controlled momentum for much of the second half.

All-SEC quarterback Aaron Murray passed for 323 yards, but he threw no touchdowns, one interception and was sacked four times by a dominant defensive line led by Corey Crawford and Vic Beasley.

"We're not a soft bunch," Crawford said. "I know last year we had a couple of games that probably made it look like that but this year we've taken it upon ourselves to let everyone know we're not soft. We just crunked things up. I don't know. We told ourselves we're going to play with these boys, we're fixing to stop them and that's what we did."

The day – which began with a visit from ESPN's uber-popular College GameDay roadshow and ended with Swinney and his team celebrating on national TV – was a showcase for an ascendant program. The program that coined the term "Clemsoning" – losing to an inferior opponent for no reason – seems like a distant memory.

Clemson has won 12 of its last 14 games – with the only losses to Florida State and South Carolina – and done so often in spectacular, fun fashion. Chad Morris' hurry-up, no-huddle offense has shown it can go fast and slow, with balance, power and finesse.

Saturday, the Tigers passed for 270 yards and rushed for 197, with senior tailback Rod McDowell piling up 131 physical yards and senior quarterback Tajh Boyd accounting for five touchdowns.

That's what Swinney wants to hear about. "It's about what we've done," he said. "We've competed at a high level. We're not perfect but we've competed at a high level. We've achieved a lot of things. I think (our players) should be recognized and complemented for what they have done. I'm tired of that storyline. It's a fun thing to talk about, but you all know what our guys have been able to do in the last 30 weeks of college football. They've been incredibly consistent."

Clemson is an SEC East school in an ACC program's body, and that's not going to change. Nights like Saturday – when 83,330 packed Death Valley and were loud, proud and strong, all night long – make Swinney's program unique within the ACC, save Florida State and perhaps Virginia Tech. The recently signed grant of rights means the Tigers are bound to the ACC and vice versa, and that's fine. Beat the LSUs, Georgias and, yes, the South Carolinas of the world, and they can be nationally relevant on a consistent basis right where they are.

"I have all the respect in the world for the SEC," Swinney continued. "It's not about a league. It's about a program. I love being in the ACC and all that stuff, but we're worried about Clemson and making it the best place Clemson can be. I don't feel we take a backseat to anyone. We've built a program with character, toughness and all the right players. We've still got a long way to go, but if we can be as consistent as we've been, be a top-10, top-15 program, when you guys write out the polls, put Clemson in and show the progress we've made. These players deserve a little bit of respect for how they compete."

After nights like Saturday – with the college football world watching – that respect is coming, and quickly.

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