Following the Clemson Tigers’ convincing 37-17 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney ranted about his National Championship-bound team to reporters, stating, “[N]obody believes in this team except these guys, and they just got a great heart, and it showed tonight.”
It was at this point that a lot of people looked at the College Football Playoff bracket, in which Clemson was the No. 1 overall seed, and the AP Poll, which Clemson sat atop for the final five weeks of the season, and wondered aloud…”Wait, who is ‘Nobody?'”
#Clemson LB Ben Boulware: “Y’all can’t doubt us now. Y’all can’t doubt 14-0!”
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 1, 2016
It’s true that the Tigers were slight underdogs headed into the Orange Bowl but the disrespected underdog is actually a role Clemson knows how to play because they’ve been playing it all season long, whether it’s actually true or not.
The Tigers spent the weeks leading up to the Oklahoma game engaged in The Great Disrespect War of 2015. Afterward, Clemson’s ability to overcome “disrespect” seemed like more of a story than their actual victory over the Sooners. Now that the one-loss Alabama Crimson Tide has been installed as a near-touchdown favorite in the National Championship game, Clemson will get one last disrespected ride into the sunset.
So Clemson is 14-0, with 5 Ws over 10 win teams, and will get to pay that disrespect/underdog card for motivation one more time — Lou Ciaccia (@louciaccia) January 1, 2016
Not sure what’s gonna be worse, #1 Clemson playing the disrespect card or freaking Alabama playing it
— Jake Nazar (@ATVS_JakeNazar) January 1, 2016
Disrespect isn’t an ideology unique to the 2015 football season for Clemson. It’s less a motivational tool and more a mantra. An edict. A maxim to live by as a commonly-held truth.
Playing the disrespect card is nothing new for any football team but there’s something in the water in Death Valley that infects not only the football players & coaches but also the fanbase itself.
Players from other schools disrespect Clemson. Other college football teams disrespect Clemson. ESPN disrespects Clemson. The media disrespects Clemson. Entire regions of America disrespect Clemson. Literally everyone on Planet Earth disrespects Clemson.
To say something about a football game involving your team and Clemson is to invite a disrespectful wrath unlike anything you’ve ever seen. When Syracuse RB Jerome Smith tweeted support for his quarterback before playing Clemson in 2013, that was spun into Smith taking a shot at Clemson QB Tajh Boyd and led to bad blood between the two teams. When Notre Dame’s Will Fuller tweeted a playful message before their game against the Tigers this season, it snowballed to the point where one Notre Dame fan was able to track the entire Clemson Blueprint For Manufacturing Disrespect.
If Clemson Football were a meme, it would be #FOREVERDISRESPEKT.
In a way, “Clemsoning” was the perfect concept for Clemson to feed off of, like the Starkiller Base draining a nearby star in order to sustain it’s death-ray. This idea that the Tigers would inexplicably lose games they had no business losing fits perfectly with the self-fulfilling narrative that Clemson is a good program that isn’t actually great.
That idea, that Clemson is good but not great, is what’s at the heart of the matter here.
First of all, it’s not true. At least not anymore. Clemson has been among the top tier of college football programs the last five seasons, compiling a 56-11 record that includes two ACC titles, three Orange Bowl appearances and, now, a National Title opportunity. The idea that Clemson’s football program doesn’t belong in the same breath as Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon and Florida State is, at-best, laughable.
Before 2011, however, Clemson was objectively a good-but-not-great football program. The 1981 National Championship quickly became a trivia question, lodged between the Alabama/Notre Dame-dominated Late 70’s and Miami-dominated 80’s. “Hey, did you know Clemson won the National Title in 1981? Seriously!” Following a run of 10-2 seasons to cap the 80’s, Clemson settled into an era of mediocrity in the 90’s, often doing well enough to be ranked and play in a mid-tier bowl game, but never good enough to get mentioned in a discussion of elite football teams. The Tigers rode that reputation of good-but-not-great into the 00’s until Dabo showed up and elevated the program to what it has become.
The problem with a reputation is that it’s very hard to break away from it until you do something significant. Clemson spent the better part of two decades establishing itself as a perpetual Peach Bowl participant and at some point that’s what national college football fans settled on as well. Double-digit win seasons and ACC Championships are great and valid accomplishments, but they’re not groundbreaking accomplishments. At least not in the eyes of the masses.
Meanwhile, Clemson fans seemingly spent this entire “greatness diaspora” with a very different view of the state of Tigers football. They knew Clemson as one of the few programs good enough to win a national title in the modern era. They knew Clemson as the program that dominated the ACC before you-kn0w-who showed up. They knew Clemson as Death Valley and Jon Bostic and William “Refrigerator” Perry and Terry Kinard and Danny Ford and Howard’s Rock. They know Clemson as one of college football’s historic and great programs and they expect it to be treated as such.
The internal expectations did not match the external expectations. Couple that with a subconscious fear that the dissenting opinion is true, and, voilà! Thus born #DISRESPECT.
On January 11, Clemson will get a chance to officially put all of that disrespect, real or otherwise, to bed. They might defeat Alabama and pepper their post-game celebrations with cries of “Nobody believed in us!” and “We proved everyone wrong!” Or they might lose and spend the off-season collecting “disrespectful” quotes to write on the blackboard during 2016 practice as a way to fuel their fire.
The media knows the game by now. They know Clemson wants to talk about how disrespected it is and they’ll ask plenty of leading questions over the course of the next week. If you’re sick of hearing about it now, just wait.
That’s especially true now that we know Alabama will get unlimited practice time while Clemson is limited to 20 hours thanks to a dumb NCAA rule. Even though this is nothing new, and has been proven not to actually give the team with more practice an advantage, it’s the perfect seed from which a fruitful tree of disrespect can grow.
The entire Clemson identity has been wrapped up in disrespect for so long, it will be interesting to see what happens if they actually do win. If there’s no one left to disrespect them, what then?
What will the identity of Clemson Football be in a post-disrespectful world?
Considering how good they’ve gotten at it, something tells us they’ll find a way to feel disrespected either way.