Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney likes to remind the media and the fans that every year is different. Because so many players come and go from one season to the next in college football, you can’t measure how a team might be successful based on the previous years.
However, there is some merit of transfer from one year to the next, and that is experience leadership. If there is one advantage second-ranked Clemson has over No. 3 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29, it is experience.
This year’s semifinal game will mark the fourth straight year Clemson’s seniors will play in the College Football Playoff. There is something to say for that, especially when 16 of those seniors have played or started in the previous three CFP semifinals.
The Tigers are 2-1 in the previous three semifinal games with wins over Oklahoma in the 2016 Orange Bowl, Ohio State in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl and a loss to Alabama in the 2018 Sugar Bowl.
“I think the experience is not a negative,” Swinney said. “It’s definitely a positive when you have some guys that they have an understanding of the pace and can maybe bring up some of the younger players.”
The difference in the CFP as opposed to other bowl games is the hype and the distractions from the media. The four teams in the playoff are constantly being requested for interviews by ESPN and other national outlets, while also having to do their regular obligations to the local media.
They have to balance all of that around their school work as well as they have classes to attend, papers to write and then finals.
Then there is the hype. The two semifinals are talked about at nauseam during the next four weeks by all the talking heads on radio and television.
“I think it’s important that they’ve been in those kinds of games and that venue,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t think there’s any substitute for that. What follows is the hype and the distractions that are easy to happen unless you’ve experienced it.”
The Irish (12-0) is no stranger to playing in big games. However, this is their first appearance in the CFP, so it is going to be a new experience for the entire team.
“You know, we’re fortunate in that we play all over the country, from the L.A. Coliseum to Yankee Stadium,” Kelly said. “Obviously, our football team has experienced that just by its travel and being all over the country. So, in a smaller degree, we have to deal with it week in and week out.
“But there’s definitely an advantage when you’ve been in this before. And I think, you know, Coach (Swinney) understands that, at the end of the day, that certainly is a piece of it, but you got to go out and you got to perform, and you got to execute.”
Swinney and Kelly see eye-to-eye on the execution. Also keep in mind, as veteran laded as Clemson is, it will still start a true freshman at quarterback and has several other freshman players who will play in the game.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to create on that and you’ve got to play well,” Swinney said. “These are four great teams that are left in this thing. And Coach Kelly and the job he’s done at Notre Dame this year and this team, they’ve had a special season.
“So, experience is great, for sure, but you got to play well. What it all comes down to is four quarters of good football.”
However, Swinney loves his seniors and he has appreciated the way they have handled themselves and led their teammates this year and has helped put the Tigers back in position to play for another national championship.
“I do love our team. I think we’ve got a bunch of veterans that have a good visual of how they got to prepare and get themselves ready,” he said. “And then, you know, we got those young guys, like you said, a freshman quarterback and some other young players on this team that, hopefully, will kind of jump in line and follow the lead of these veterans that we do have as far as how we go through our preparation process.”