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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The greatest show in college football swooped into Atlantic Coast Conference media days with ear-to-ear smiles, an unmistakable aura of justified confidence and, on the head of senior offensive lineman John Simpson, a blonde wig honoring its notably absent star quarterback.
Clemson was last seen doing the unimaginable: dominating Alabama for the national championship, the program’s second in three years. The 28-point dismantling in January served as the coming-out party for said quarterback — rising sophomore Trevor Lawrence, he of the flowing locks and the most hyped prospect at his position in years — and created a noticeable chunk of space between the Tigers and everyone else, the Crimson Tide included.
The comparisons may never end. Alabama has returned its key pieces, namely coach Nick Saban and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, but has otherwise retooled, with a largely rebuilt coaching staff. Meanwhile, Clemson has suffered a series of key personnel losses along the defensive line and elsewhere yet remains remarkably consistent along the sidelines, ensuring a degree of schematic continuity the Tide simply cannot match.
Fittingly, the two battled for the spotlight nearly simultaneously on Wednesday, with Clemson holding court here just hours after Saban and Alabama’s meet-and-greet with the SEC in Atlanta. Six months removed from their last meeting, the Tigers and Tide are expected to renew their national series in another six months, this time in New Orleans.
But while they share the stage, the Tigers have stolen the show. With Lawrence, Dabo Swinney, a gifted crop of wide receivers and an unimaginable amount of momentum, Clemson enters its title defense as the face of college football — let alone as a team so dominant it has rendered the race in this Power Five conference a moot point.
The rivalry with Alabama speaks to the prominent story line surrounding ACC media days: Clemson has everyone else in the league playing for second. While individual teams have put scares into Clemson, including Syracuse a season ago, and while others have even beaten Clemson in league play, the Tigers are simply operating on another level.
“Any time you have a team that’s doing what Clemson is doing in college football, it’s good for the entire league,” said ACC Commissioner John Swofford.
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Last year’s team became the first in more than a century to win 15 games, in doing so exceeding the combined win total of the top two teams in the Coastal Division. Clemson has won 34 of its past 36 league games, a stretch dating to the start of the 2015 season. Only two ACC games across the past two years have been decided by single digits, both against Syracuse.
“I think, and it should be this way, that the teams in the ACC Atlantic play Clemson better than a lot of those teams around the country,” said Syracuse coach Dino Babers. “But we play them all the time. So we should be better.”
Meanwhile, Clemson’s rise has been accompanied by middling-to-worse results from Miami (Fla.) and Florida State, robbing the ACC of the luster of having multiple name programs to match the overall depth of the SEC. Since reaching the Orange Bowl following the 2016 season, the Seminoles have lost more games than they’ve won and undergone a coaching change, with Willie Taggart replacing Jimbo Fisher. The Hurricanes briefly surged into College Football Playoff contention under Mark Richt but is experiencing a change of its own, with Manny Diaz replacing Richt after last season.
“If it stayed that way forever, that would be a problem,” Richt said. “But that’s not going to happen. Not saying Clemson won’t be great for a long time.”
Yet there’s no drama in the ACC, and in a way to Clemson’s detriment. One of the talking points in the wake of the recent championship pitched the Tigers’ road to the Playoff as easier and smoother than the tough road traveled by teams in the SEC; that the Tigers get breathers along the way while an Alabama largely doesn’t. It’s a war of perception the Tigers can’t and don’t win, even if they win nearly everything else.
“The rhetoric used to be an ACC team is never going to win the national championship because they don’t play anybody,” Swinney said. “This league doesn’t take a back seat to anyone. It’s a very competitive league.”
In the end, with no real threat within the ACC, it always comes back to the comparison. Even on Wednesday, with players in tailored suits and with weeks to go until the start of preseason camp, Clemson and Alabama were intertwined. Asked for his thoughts on the Tigers, Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses said Clemson’s win in the championship game “was more preparation,” and that he wouldn’t say Clemson was “a better team.”
Instead, “Georgia is definitely the hardest team I have played in college,” Moses said. In a reversal only slightly less stunning than January’s final score, the Tigers now occupy this sort of obsessive headspace as the name atop college football’s marquee.
“Those guys are really, really talented over there,” Simpson said of Alabama. “If that’s how they feel then that’s just how they feel. I don’t want to say this, but Georgia didn’t beat them by 28 points. You know what I’m saying? It is what it is. It’s all facts. That his opinion and that’s what it is.”