NEW ORLEANS — It seems so long ago but no less surreal.
Turns out, a shocking loss was just what Clemson needed to make a run at its second straight national championship.
The top-ranked Tigers (12-1) undoubtedly have the worst defeat among the four teams in the College Football Playoff, really one of the worst for any team in the Top 25.
When Syracuse stunned Clemson 27-24 on a Friday night in mid-October, it was the last win of the season for the Orange. They finished with a five-game skid and a 4-8 record.
Clemson, of course, didn’t lose again. The Tigers had only one close call the rest of the way, romping to the Atlantic Coast Conference title and setting up a New Year’s night rematch against No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game.
“That told us if we don’t bring it for one game, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said Thursday. “We can definitely get beat. That was really a time for us to grow up.”
The Orange piled up 28 first downs, a 440-317 advantage in total yards and a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession. The Tigers were largely doomed when quarterback Kelly Bryant, already slowed by an injured ankle, was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the final minute of the first half.
In the playoff era, it’s certainly not unusual for the eventual national champion to overcome a surprising defeat. With the regular season now at 12 games, not to mention conference championship games and a playoff system that requires two more wins, a slip-up along the way is almost impossible to avoid.
When coach Dabo Swinney entered the locker room that night in Syracuse, he assured his team that all their goals – an ACC title, a national championship – were still within reach.
Team leaders such as Wilkins reiterated that message.
Clemson is trying to pull off an accomplishment that hasn’t been done in 40 years – win a national title after losing to a sub-.500 team during the regular season.
Timing is everything, of course.
The huge blemish on Clemson’s resume was largely overlooked by the time the selection committee made its choices for the College Football Playoff, anointing the Tigers with the No. 1 seed.
Contrast that with Alabama, which took its only loss in the regular-season finale to Auburn. That defeat kept the Crimson Tide out of the Southeastern Conference championship game and left it on the brink of being excluded from the playoff.
“When you become a really good program in college football, it’s not just about having great players,” defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “You’re going to get everybody’s best. Every team is going to be dialed in on every aspect. A lot of teams put their whole season into beating us.”
The Tigers emerged from Syracuse a different team, a team truly capable of winning another championship.