To this day, Oklahoma center Ty Darlington’s phone background still reads 40-6 – the score from last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl loss against Clemson. Some might say that loss sparked this season, fueling the Sooners’ mantra of ‘Never Again.’
Just about everything that happened on that late December night – all the missed tackles, the bad plays and the bad memories – led to this season. Everything that could have gone wrong last year against Clemson did go wrong.
Darlington would never want to live through it again, but it’s hard to envision this season without last year’s humiliation. Now, Oklahoma (11-1) has come full circle.
“I don’t think that’s something you can forget about it,” Darlington said. “That’s something that’s probably ingrained in my memory forever. I don't think it’s something I’ll ever forget about it.
“Obviously, it was very embarrassing and all that. They whooped us up and down the field for 60 minutes. We haven't forgotten about it, but it’s going to be a little bit different.”
But it’s not like that on the other sideline. Whereas Oklahoma had most of its starters and playmakers return from last year’s team, top-ranked Clemson is a much difference team.
The Tigers’ starting quarterback and two of its top three leading receivers from the bowl victory won’t play on New Year’s Eve. Clemson had four all-conference defensive players who have moved on from the school. The Tigers had six defensive players invited to the NFL combine last spring – the most of any school.
“A lot of our guys from last year, they’re not here,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “A lot of these guys didn’t get to play that game. The big thing I always tell our guys, it’s never good as it seems, it’s never bad as it seems. . . . But that’s football. Those things don’t win for you. Last week’s plays don’t win this week, and last year’s success doesn’t win this year. This is a new team. They’re a new team.”