Clemson happy to play the role of underdog once more

Eric Mac Lain (left) and the Tigers' offensive line will face a deep and talented Alabama front seven. AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt

Linebacker Ben Boulware was answering what may well have been the 1,000th question he has fielded about the lack of respect given to Clemson this postseason, when the hype surrounding Alabama overcame even his steadfast resolve.

A reporter wanted to know if, with a win in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Clemson might finally earn some of that same national attention afforded Alabama year in and year out.

“I’m glad we’re going against the best,” Boulware said before catching himself. “Well, what everybody says is the best team in college football. Technically we’re ranked No. 1.”

Yes, Clemson’s status as the No. 1 team in the land is a mere technicality at this point. Alabama has the public backing as a 7-point favorite heading into Monday's title game. And, of course, Alabama gets the hype. The Crimson Tide have been college football’s gold standard for most of the past decade, and this will be Nick Saban’s fourth championship bout as Alabama’s coach. The Tide’s defensive front runs as deep as any in the nation, and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry waits in the Alabama backfield, poised to run roughshod over yet another worn-down defense.

Same old, same old for Clemson.

“We heard Oklahoma was the most complete team in the country,” safety Jayron Kearse said after the Tigers stomped the No. 4 Sooners in the Capital One Orange Bowl, the CFP semifinal. “That’s crazy. We had a top-25 offense and defense.”

Sure, Clemson’s spread offense is suitably designed to minimize Alabama’s strength up front. And yes, the Tigers’ pass rush is exceptional, and their secondary could prove a nightmare for Jake Coker. And no, Alabama hasn’t faced a quarterback like Deshaun Watson all season.

None of that takes away from Clemson’s status as the decided underdog, and that’s just the way the Tigers like it.

“It just adds that extra excitement,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “But these guys are internally motivated. We wouldn’t be in this position if they weren’t.”

That’s true, but it’s worth noting that in four of the past five games in which Clemson was an underdog in Las Vegas, the Tigers won outright.

And it’s also true that for the Orange Bowl, there were few pundits siding with Clemson.

“Even Flipper the dolphin picked against us,” Kearse said of the annual pregame event in which a dolphin predicts the Orange Bowl winner.

None of that stopped Clemson from completely overwhelming Oklahoma for the second year in a row as an underdog.

So, why should Monday’s championship game be any different?

For one, Alabama really is good. The point spread isn’t simply a matter of public perception. Turn on the film, and it’s obvious the Crimson Tide present challenges unlike anything Clemson has faced this season.

But that, too, is exciting for the Tigers.

“[A’Shawn Robinson] is probably going to be a top-10 draft pick, so if I want to play in the NFL, I’ve got to do well in this game,” Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said. “That’s the way I’m looking at it. This is a money game.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by running back Wayne Gallman, who’ll be forced to go against that stout front and Watson, finally getting a stage befitting his talent. All-American pass-rusher Shaq Lawson sprained his knee against Oklahoma, and he already has an NFL future decided -- he’s going to declare his draft eligibility after the title game -- but he said he wants to be on the field for the chance to go out with a win over vaunted Alabama.

That’s really the point of all this, Elliott said. The proverbial chip on Clemson’s shoulder is a nice way to push players through one more practice session or another hour in the film room, but once the game starts, this is about beating an Alabama team that’s proven itself over the long haul.

It’s not about Clemson lacking respect, Elliott said. It’s about the Tigers wanting what Alabama already has.

“We just have to continue to prove it,” he said. “If you want people to naturally give you that respect, you have to command it.”