CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney first task after the Tigers’ national title loss was crystal clear: Make sure his players weren’t crushed by the defeat.
After all, a good chunk of Clemson’s roster — including quarterback Trevor Lawrence — had never lost a game in college before LSU’s 42-25 win ended a 29-game win streak.
“From that standpoint, it was something that I paid close attention to, especially with Trevor,” said Swinney, who just complete his 11th year as head coach and has won two national titles. “I’d never lost a game with him, but he was amazing, how he handled it, how the team responded.”
That focus, according to Swinney, has carried over into the past month as Clemson prepares to start its program of winter workouts and, on Feb. 26, start spring practice.
The Tigers, who went 14-1 last season and won their fifth straight Atlantic Coast Conference, are already strong favorites to win a sixth league crown and make it back to the College Football Playoff.
to that, Swinney has to make sure players are not hung up on their first defeat in more than two years.
“It was a gut punch, for sure. Down for a couple of days,” Swinney said. “But it’s a decision in how you respond to the win, respond to the loss and our team has been amazing, our leadership, it’s been good for me to be able to see that.”
Especially given Clemson’s CFP history. Twice before the Tigers followed playoff losses by winning championships the following year. Ex-Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and the offense, which fell to Alabama in the 2015 title game, rallied past the Crimson Tide a year later for the school’s first national title in 35 years.
The Tigers lost to Alabama in the CFP semis after the 2017 and pushed by an experienced defensive line led by All-Americans Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence and freshman Lawrence, routed the Crimson Tide in 2018.
Swinney and his staff has liked what they’ve seen since the LSU loss. Lawrence spent time in the locker room and on the trip home talking with teammates and pointing them toward success in 2020, Swinney said.
And it surely helped when the Tigers learned that two-time defending ACC player of the year in tailback Travis Etienne — like Wilkins and Ferrell did after the 2017 playoff defeat — was coming back to school for his senior season instead of jumping to the NFL.
Swinney said Etienne, who became Clemson’s all-time rushing leader during the championship game, had received a second-round NFL draft grade from the College Advisory Committee. But Etienne had told Swinney before the playoffs he was strongly considering a fourth college season.
Swinney was slightly surprised, but understood what another experienced, talented player like Etienne would mean to next year’s championship efforts.
“I think he’s got a chance for this to really, really pay off for him,” the coach said.
Lawrence will look to have what many expect to be his final college season to have a championship payoff, too.
The 6-foot-5 quarterback will be a junior and could be the overall No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft should he forego his senior season.
There are plenty of steps ahead before that, Clemson quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter said.
Lawrence had one of his worst showings in college against LSU, completing just 18 of 37 passes for 234 yards as he continually overthrew receivers against a fierce pass rush.
Brandon Streeter, Clemson’s quarterbacks coach, said a big part of the plan for Lawrence is enhancing his role as a team leader. Lawrence was led by the older players two years ago as a freshman taking over the starting job in midseason.
This year, Lawrence was more vocal and active in guiding the offense, Streeter said.
On the field, Lawrence will look to refine his solid technique and innate ability to successfully read defenses.
Streeter worked with Watson’s development with the an eye to the NFL. He’ll do the same for Lawrence.
“You’ve got to groom him, not just for his time here, but for the NFL,” Streeter said.
And it may just lead the Tigers to another championship season.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25