You hear Dabo Swinney say it all the time. The only team that can beat Clemson is Clemson.
For 14 games last season, the Tigers avoided beating themselves as they made one on of the most historical runs in the program’s history. For 14 games, Clemson did not lose to Clemson. However, in the biggest game the program has played in 34 years, the Tigers were beat by the Tigers.
Granted, Alabama deserves credit for finding a way to win the game. Nick Saban’s onside kick was a genius call and the 95-yard kickoff return by Kenyan Drake was the deal breaker. But as Swinney pointed out to his team before the start of spring practice this past March, those are not the two plays that cost Clemson a National Championship.
The Tigers’ head coach took five plays that really had nothing to do with anything Alabama did and had everything do with what Clemson did not do. In the video, Swinney proved that if they executed on two of those plays, they would have been standing on that stage last January holding up the national championship trophy.
“We made a couple of mistakes and when you are in a game like that, and you are playing an opponent like that, it is a few plays,” Swinney said. “Yes, there are some games where we will have a bigger margin for error, but when you are playing championship level, championship caliber football, and it is truly good on good, it is a few plays.”
Swinney opened the video by showing two plays the best player on the team did not make. The interception in the second quarter when Ray Ray McCloud was running down the sideline wide open and on a running play early in the fourth quarter.
On the interception, with the Tigers up 14-7 at the time, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson spotted McCloud coming open down the far sideline. If Watson sets his feet and throws the ball correctly, McCloud perhaps goes untouched for an easy touchdown. However, he did not set his feet and he put too much air on the ball, allowing the Alabama safety to come over and intercept the pass, setting up the Crimson Tide’s second touchdown of the night.
In the fourth quarter, with Clemson on top 24-21, Watson and running back Wayne Gallman had a problem exchanging the football on a running play at the Alabama 40-yard line. The ball fell to the ground and Watson dropped on the loose ball.
The fumble was correctly charged to Watson because he did not properly exchange the ball with Gallman causing the four-yard loss. The minus-play put Clemson behind the chains and killed what could have been a promising scoring drive.
Alabama got the ball back and tied the game on a field goal. After that, Saban called the onside kick and the Crimson Tide never trailed again.
“(Alabama) made two great plays. Sometimes the opponent makes plays, too,” Swinney said. “They made a great play down the sideline where the ball falls out of the sky and their guy makes a great catch. That’s ball. Guys make plays. The other team has good players, too.
“But it is about the things we control, and that was kind of the message in that video. I started with our best player. Deshaun had two plays in that game that were critical mistakes and critical errors. It was an easy way to transfer into spring practice and to make sure everyone had their mind right as we got back to the basics because it was the little things that cost us in that game.”
Though Watson finished the game with a national championship game record 478 total yards and four touchdowns, he agreed with his head coach that there were things he could have done differently that might have changed the outcome of the game.
“It was just kind of a message as we started the spring that it is just all about Clemson. It’s about what we control. It is not about anything else. Let’s take care of us,” Swinney said. “Of the five (plays) that I presented, if we could change two of them, the outcome is probably different. But you can’t change them.”
And that’s the point, to make sure next time there are no “what ifs.”