Clemson, Alabama going where they’ve never gone before tonight — a 15th game

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney pose with the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy following their joint press conference on Sunday. (Photo by Bill Slane/Cronkite News)

Ask any coaches and they’ll likely say the same thing – winning championships, regardless of how many games you play, is hard. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney pointed to one of his associate head coaches as an example.

“You take a guy like Dan Brooks,” Swinney said. “Dan Brooks has been coaching 42 years, and he’s coached at Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and Clemson. This guy has been at some great programs, and he’s got one national championship. It’s really hard to do.”

Brooks won his championship as a member of Philip Fulmer’s staff at Tennessee in 1998. The Volunteers won all 13 games they played that season, ending their year with a victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl to capture the national title.

The implementation of the College Football Playoff last season added another hurdle for potential national champions to clear before hoisting the ultimate prize – an extra game. Teams like Alabama and Clemson, both of which are in conferences that also play a conference championship game now, have to play 15 games to vie for college football’s national championship.

In 1992, Swinney had a preview of what his players could be going through in this process. That year was the first time the SEC Championship game was played and Alabama, whose roster included then-senior wide receiver Swinney, faced off with the No. 12 Florida Gators. A win by the No. 2 Crimson Tide would secure a meeting with No. 1 Miami, which had no conference championship to play.

“I thought it just kind of solidified that mentality of, you know what, let’s get this done,” he said. “I thought our week of preparation in New Orleans was tremendous, and we just didn’t get distracted by all the stuff that really doesn’t pertain to how you play the game.”

Swinney’s Crimson Tide beat the Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl to complete a 13-0 season and win the national championship.

By the time this the winner is crowned at University of Phoenix Stadium tonight, this year’s Clemson and Alabama teams will have played in two more games than the Crimson Tide played to win the 1992 title. This will also be the first time in either school’s history its football team will play 15 games in a season, making the challenge that much more difficult.

Coach Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide were in the inaugural playoff a year ago but fell in their 14th game of the season to the eventual national champion Ohio State Buckeyes. One more game may not seem such a daunting proposition, but it is not one Saban takes lightly.

“I think that as a coach you certainly acknowledge the fact that your players are going into the 15th game of the season,” he said. “And I think you have to respect that in every way.”

That includes making sure his players are focused throughout the extra time and are keeping their minds and bodies ready for the task ahead of them.

“They are young players,” Saban said. “But our guys have done a really good job of sort of using the rest time that they have, that when we are practicing and preparing, their focus has been good.”

Players on both teams are taking the extra time and extra game on their schedules in stride, and in true fashion of competitors at the highest level, are treating it like any other game.

“Really the same preparation,” Clemson offensive lineman Tyson Crowder said. “Might have a little bit more time than normal, a little more film work, but the same preparation. Nothing’s changed.”

Saban referenced his experience in playing extra games as a coach in the NFL, where the schedule includes a 16-game regular season. Saban was the defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns from 1991-94, helping leading his team to a playoff win in 1994. He then spent two seasons as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins from 2005-06. Having that background as a coach can help to keep his players focused on playing a 15th and final game this season.

“If you get in the (NFL) playoffs it’s 17, 18 games,” Saban said. “I think that you kind of try to get the players to focus on doing the things that they need to do to accomplish their goals and not focus so much on how they feel because I do think it’s a long season for them.”

Both teams playing have put themselves in a good position after a long season of college football. After losing to Ole Miss in the third game of the season, Alabama has won 11 straight games, by an average of 23 points per game.

Clemson has rattled off 14 straight wins this season by an average of 16.8 points per game as it looks to be the first team in college football to ever go 15-0. Swinney likes the situation his team is in.

“I think it’s good, good as it can be,” he said. “But it certainly is a long season, and our guys are ready to go.”