FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Late in his Wednesday morning news conference, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was asked whether he’d employed any “Jedi mind tricks” to motivate his team this week.
Swinney grinned, swiped his hand through the air with a whir, and asked, “Is that Star Wars?”
If he’s not entirely practiced in the ways of the Force, Swinney’s team still offered some blockbuster drama in the run-up to the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl, with the suspension of three players -- Deon Cain, Jay Jay McCullough and Ammon Lakip -- for a violation of team rules stealing the headlines. And for the bulk of the proceedings Wednesday, Swinney did his best Obi-Wan Kenobi, waving away questions about distractions and damaged depth charts.
“Why would it be a distraction?” Swinney said. “[They] don’t have anything to do with Shaq Lawson. They don’t have anything to do with the rest of those guys. It’s not a distraction at all.”
What else can he say? A distraction or not, the departures are the last thing Swinney wants to be talking about the day before the biggest game of his coaching career. But that’s par for the course this week. Despite the wealth of star power ready to take the field, the Orange Bowl has been one bit of off-the-field drama after another this week, with this latest news simply a fitting finale.
First there was Baker Mayfield's war of words with TCU coach Gary Patterson.
At Tuesday’s media day, Joe Mixon stole the show by saying nothing at all. His relative silence regarding an alleged assault overshadowed the rest of the proceedings, turning a storyline from more than a year ago into a PR nightmare.
And just when Clemson might have felt it had escaped the harsh glare of the playoff spotlight, three backups took center stage.
“You don’t do the right things, and there are consequences,” Swinney said. “It’s not a very complicated matter at all.”
Sure, it’s just that one of those players is the team’s most efficient deep threat and another is a veteran kicker who’s handled kickoffs and PATs. Distractions? Maybe not. But this does change things on the field.
The drama for Oklahoma, on the other hand, hasn’t been at all about the X's and O's, and Mayfield insists a little trash talk and ginned-up controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So what if TCU’s coach is ticked off by a few stray comments by the Oklahoma QB. Maybe it’s a good thing. That chip on Mayfield’s shoulder? It’s a “good-sized boulder,” he said.
“You have to find that mentality and that edge going into a game,” Mayfield said. “These past couple weeks, you hear people jumping on the bandwagon and telling you how good you are, and you can’t get satisfied.”
So Mayfield plays the part of martyr. Zack Sanchez slights Watson, and Jordan Leggett suggests his quarterback will pick Oklahoma’s defense apart. Sterling Shepard and Mackensie Alexander subtly seethe over the lack of respect one affords the other following last year’s bowl game. The Sooners decry ESPN’s broadcast of the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, and the Tigers bemoan their role as underdogs in spite of their No. 1 ranking.
Distractions? Those three players hitting the road back to Clemson are just the latest in a run of bulletin-board fodder, controversy and drama.
And for all their insistence that none of this will matter once toe meets leather, Swinney and Bob Stoops can’t be thrilled with the headlines this week. So Mixon’s past is downplayed, Mayfield’s feud with Patterson is cut short, Clemson’s departures are sold as nothing more than three backups making dumb mistakes.
“It’s unfortunate three guys get the headlines and not all the other good things the other 112 guys are doing,” Swinney said. “But it comes with the territory.”
Meanwhile, Alabama and Michigan State have gone about their business 1,400 miles away, toiling in relative obscurity. There’s no war of words or midweek suspensions, just business as usual.
Does any of it matter? Will that chip on Mayfield’s shoulder push him to new heights or weigh him down Thursday? Will Watson drop a few dimes on Oklahoma’s secondary as revenge for some perceived slight, or will he struggle without Cain to track down those bombs?
Perhaps the usually outspoken Alexander summed it up best. He’s grabbed his share of headlines this season by proclaiming himself the best corner in the country, by bragging about his performance against Notre Dame star Will Fuller. But for this game, he toned down the rhetoric and doubted that all the talk of distractions and disrespect, rivalries and revenge would make much difference.
“If the ball ain’t snapped, it doesn’t matter,” Alexander said. “I can come out here and say some crazy stuff, but for what? You’ve got to go out and perform. Let the play do the talking.”