Dabo Swinney can spell Alabama.
“A-L-A .....,” Swinney demonstrated by using his hand to write the imaginary letters across his chest.
But can Swinney and Clemson BEAT Alabama?
The answer to that question won’t be known until Monday night, when the schools meet for the national championship, an all-southern showdown involving Clemson — a seven-point underdog despite its No. 1 ranking and zero-loss record — and an Alabama team that is bidding for its fourth national title under Nick Saban.
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Swinney isn’t afraid, nor should he be.
We’re not a flash in the pan.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
Clemson’s 46-year-old coach isn’t only in charge of the team riding a 17-game winning streak, something Saban and the Crimson Tide can’t claim, but is intimately familiar with his opponent.
After all, Swinney not only graduated from Alabama, he played and coached there.
Why, some are already saying he’s the early frontrunner for the coaching gig in Tuscaloosa whenever Saban decides he has won enough title trophies and steps away.
Swinney has more Alabama in him than Saban does. Born and raised there.
It’s quite an ascent for Swinney. Many questioned whether Clemson had even made the right decision in hiring him. The Tigers were a nondescript 22-18 during his first three years on the job.
But in the athletic world of what-have-you-done-lately, Swinney has became a South Carolina swami, putting Clemson back on the football map.
The Tigers and only one other team — Alabama — are able to boast 10-win seasons in each of the past five years.
It’s just that Clemson, unlike Alabama, seldom enters the national conversation. Florida State’s recent dominance in the Atlantic Coast Conference had a lot to do with it, overshadowing its conference rival. The Tigers’ one and only national title came in the 1981 season.
“We’ve just kind of been laying in the weeds for seven years,” Swinney said.
They’ve been doing a good job of it though.
Swinney bristles at any suggestion that Clemson and its ACC schedule doesn’t muster up to the ballyhooed Southeastern Conference. He points to the record, which is nothing shabby, when the Tigers have ventured out of conference.
“We’re not a flash in the pan,” Swinney said before running down the list of Clemson’s signature wins during his time there. “I mean, we played Ohio State and they were 24-1. Well, we beat them. We played LSU, had no chance to win. Well, we won. We beat Oklahoma two years in a row [including a playoff-semifinal win in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve that got them to the championship game]. We weren’t supposed to win any of those games. We’ve beaten Auburn. We’ve beaten Georgia.”
And on it goes.
Still, Swinney understands Saban and Alabama don’t have to sell themselves the same way, that success at Alabama is a given.
“At Alabama, they expect you to win the national championship every year,” Swinney said. “At Clemson, it’s only every other year.”
But to knock off Alabama, even Swinney understands the magnitude of that should it come to pass.
“How gratifying? Are you kidding me?” Swinney said in response to the question. “You’ve got to slay a dragon Monday night. This is a lot easier said than done, and everybody knows that when you’re going to try to beat Alabama.”
Swinney has a lot of friends in Alabama, along with former teammates from the 1992 Alabama national championship team he played on — fans of the Crimson Tide, no less — and knows that Monday’s matchup is causing mixed feelings.
“A lot of them are just saying, ‘Well, good luck to you,’ ” he said. “Or they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m pulling for you. You’re my brother, you’re my relationship. But don’t tell anybody.’ There will be a lot of people happy one way or the other Monday night.”