The 2015 football season was a season of firsts for Clemson football. It didn’t start that way, but by the end, each week was a series of never-before-seen circumstances in the lengthy history of Tiger football.
While last year was about working toward historic achievement, history is already being made in Clemson’s football program in 2016—and the ball hasn’t been kicked off yet. The lofty perch on which the Tigers find themselves is without precedent, as are the challenges that come with such a perch.
The Associated Press poll recently dubbed Clemson the second-best team in the country. No Tiger team has ever entered a season with that distinction. The only team ranked higher is Alabama, the elite squad that bested an upstart bunch from upstate South Carolina that spent the fall crashing the College Football Playoff.
It’s clear that last season’s success is informing the decisions of the voters in this poll. It’s also clear that the Tigers’ cache of returning stars has caught the attention of the college football world, from coast to coast. That attention extends to every coach and player who looks at his schedule and sees the word “Clemson” written somewhere.
These things all combine to create perhaps the only factor capable of stopping the Tigers in 2016, an unquantifiable element that could strike at a moment’s notice: pressure. This is the kind of pressure no one can predict, because Clemson has never faced this kind of pressure before—not for a whole season, anyway.
The 1982 team—the only one to enter a season as the defending champion—didn’t have to deal with it. That group began the year ranked 11th overall, then it lost at Georgia in the opener and had to claw its way into the top ten.
Twice, the Tigers have been ranked fourth in the preseason. In 1984, Clemson won its first two games by a combined score of 95-7 en route to a number-two ranking before succumbing to Georgia in Athens once again. A similar thing happened in 1988—a 2-0 start while outscoring the opposition 63-10 was followed by a home loss to Florida State.
These two seasons are not the exception. Clemson has been ranked inside the top ten in the AP’s preseason poll seven times prior to this season. In six of those seasons, the Tigers finished ranked lower than they started, and the seventh season (2013) was a push.
In other words, in order to win a national title in 2016, Clemson will have to do something it has never done before. That would seem to be upsetting news for fans, but bucking historical trends and precedents feels like this program’s comfort zone. Dabo Swinney appears to relish it and prepared his team for uncharted waters repeatedly a season ago. His primary on-field leader, Deshaun Watson, appears made for this moment in time.
The cautionary tale of previous seasons is that pitfalls can spring up anywhere, at any time, even when a highly regarded team looks unstoppable. The first potential pitfall comes this week, when the Tigers travel to Auburn for a road date with an SEC opponent.
As stated above, Clemson has lost this game in the past. As also stated above, this isn’t a typical Clemson team.
Buckle up. History is about to be made.