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Clemson’s fueled by the only thing Alabama lacks: a true underdog mindset

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The Tigers embrace everything about their rematch with the reigning dynasty, earned by shutting out Urban Meyer’s Ohio State.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Allow Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins to (inadvertently) explain the motivational techniques of Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

Do you feel like your defense gets enough attention nationally?

“It really don’t matter to me. I don’t look to be brought up like that, to be in the limelight. I’m not that type of guy. But … it does give a defense that chip on their shoulder. You need that,” Watkins said after Saturday night’s win over Ohio State as a 1-point underdog.

So a great defense has to feel pissed off about what people think. Which is why Alabama hangs dumb, false signs up in its locker room, to try and piss off an incredible team into playing like something even more dangerous. Like one that holds Ohio State to 111 yards four minutes into the fourth quarter of Urban Meyer’s first shutout loss as a head coach.

“Well, you gotta find something to give you that edge, or you come out flat,” he said. “You can’t have that in games like these. You have to get that edge.”

Clemson’s defense outright voided Ohio State on New Year’s Eve with so much speed and violence, it feels like it’s the outraged, focused unit Saban wants Alabama’s to be.

The Tigers are talented, veteran on offense, and alarmingly deep on defense, and they even have national title experience.

And they don't have to deal with being Alabama.

Granted, a few hours earlier in Atlanta, Alabama was also a pretty good Alabama. But the Tigers have a motivational luxury the Tide don’t: not being the favorite.

Clemson’s front seven must have been mulling its public image all night, because the Tigers earned a national title rematch by holding OSU to 215 total yards and no points.

“We got to a point where I felt like we got onto their game plan,” Watkins said. “And at the same time, I’m telling guys, do not let up. Do not let up.”

“I just thought we’d been a little bit more focused going through preparations, all the way through our last meetings,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said after the game.

An elated Venables stood in the center of Clemson’s raucous locker room, not so much speaking, but vibrating out words with pure energy as fast as possible.

“It never felt like we would beat ourselves in this game, that feeling you get sometimes of,” he raised his hands to mock-act yelling at a player, “‘Would you pay attention??!’ We didn’t have any of that. ‘Why are you late?’ None of that. That’s the stuff that drives you crazy as a coach, when you know how close winning is but how far it is too.”

But a shutout? That’s a lot of focus to hope for.

“No. No. We were just hoping to win. We thought it would take an incredible effort just to win,” Venables said.

And so, that rematch with Alabama.

“Nah we aren’t scared,” receiver Mike Williams said. “Man, it’s football. Beat the man in front of you. Worry about that. It’s the same preparation.”

Williams is not scared. Williams is ready. He broke his neck in 2015, which meant that, among other indignities and scares, he had to stand on the sideline here at University of Phoenix Stadium and watch Clemson finish just short of doing the unthinkable against Alabama. On Saturday, he caught six passes for 96 yards to help exorcise some of those demons.

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“You enjoy these moments, but you can’t let it get too high or too low. This is something we expected. To come out and get in a win.”

But 31-0?

“Uh … yeah,” Williams starts smiling, and talks himself into his answer. “Sure. You always expect to play your best, so yeah we expected this, right?”

Watkins said the players knew about Bama’s win over Washington before they took the field for kickoff.

“I was on Ohio State though. I was seeing who we might play next, but I was locked on Ohio State. We were locked,” Watkins said.

Williams hasn’t watched any Alabama film. There’s no admission of a fixation on the loss, of any special attention given toward Alabama by Clemson players or coaches during the 2016 season. Press harder, and it’s more diplomacy.

Unless you talk to linebacker Ben Boulware.

“Honestly, this is the game we wanted. We want our revenge. We want our redemption,” Boulware said.

Maybe that’s the quote on the poster in the Tide’s team meeting room next week. You have to assume Saban will refashion something into another thin attempt at turning a team favored by a touchdown into the disrespected.

Except that Clemson is too good at it. Head coach Dabo Swinney used his podium time on national television to fire back at the incredulous critics — who, much like all those pro-Washington media folks, seem to be an apparition — who think Clemson isn’t truly a national brand, isn’t truly elite.

“We’ve been ranked up there in the top five for a long time. So I definitely think that the narrative has changed with our program. But still it seems like we’re always the underdog when we get in these big-type games, for whatever reason,” Swinney said after his team won.

It’s the same tactic as Bama’s Washington stunt. It just plays a lot better than the Tide dynasty trying to act disrespected. And it works. Swinney is 5-1 as a bowl underdog. The sole loss is last year’s National Championship.

“It’s funny because even when I played in the Army All-American game in high school out in San Antonio, I was asking folks about Clemson or Florida, and they didn’t even know what Clemson was. I was shocked,” Watkins said. “But man, I feel like right now everybody knows we’re a pretty good team.”

While Swinney and quarterback Deshaun Watson were on the podium, the Tigers’ locker room was frontloaded with media gangs around defensive tackles and ends.

Clemson’s defense was reintroducing itself to the nation. Tiger receivers and running backs were able to shower and dress almost entirely uninterrupted.

“That’s what you want, though, a team that’s deep and talented that builds a name for the future. We see those guys every day in practice, so we know, if no one else does,” Williams said.

Clemson does not have to be Alabama, merely beat Alabama. The latter might be an impossible ask of this team, but they’re operating with that weird, coveted psychology: underappreciated and, in coach-logic, therefore focused to a point of competitive advantage. Saban would die for his team to think like that.

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