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Swinney, Clemson knocking on door of elite status

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after the team's Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifianl against Ohio State, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. Clemson won 31-0 to advance to the BCS championship game Jan. 9 against Alabama. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dabo Swinney was comparing his coaching legacy to Urban Meyer’s on Thursday at Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl Media Day.

“I don’t think Urban Meyer needs to worry about his legacy,” Swinney said, laughing. “He’s locked in there. I think I’ve got to win the next 80 games in a row to be where Urban Meyer is. If I go 80-0, we’re going to be in good shape at Clemson.”

Swinney isn’t going to accomplish that goal, but the Tigers coach has a chance to climb into the upper echelon of current college coaches this season. Swinney already has two bowl wins over Meyer, a three-time national championship coach, after Saturday’s 31-0 rout of No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. Now he’s setting his sights on five-time national champion Nick Saban when the No. 2 Tigers face No. 1 Alabama on Jan. 9 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida in a rematch of last year’s national championship.

“We get an all-expenses paid trip to Tampa to play Alabama,” Swinney said, smiling. “We’re going to lay it all on the line and see if we can finish it.”

It’s been an incremental climb for Swinney and the Tigers. While Clemson is no slouch when it comes to national reputation, it doesn’t pack the name cache of Ohio State or Alabama.

Swinney’s first three and a half seasons were spent establishing an identity; the next three to establish national prominence. Now the Tigers have back-to-back ACC titles for the time in 28 years, and back-to-back appearances in the national championship game.

“We have a culture and a winning foundation that breeds consistency,” he said. “We’ve been ranked in the top five for a long time so I definitely think that the narrative has changed for our program.

“There’s really only one thing for us to do. We’ve done about everything [else] that you can do multiple times but we have not been able to win it all. You’ve got to get yourself in position to do that.”

The Tigers put themselves in that position with a dominant performance against the Buckeyes. The loss marked the first time Ohio State was shut out since a 20-0 loss to Michigan on Nov. 20, 1993 — a run of 295 games — and it represented the worst postseason loss in Meyer’s coaching career.

Ohio State managed just 48 yards of offense in the first half and 215 in the game. Clemson recorded 11 tackles for loss and three sacks (three and one, respectively by redshirt freshman defensive end Clelin Ferrell) and the run-centric Buckeyes finished with only 23 rushing attempts.

“That was not the game plan,” Meyer said. “I think we kind of got taken out of the game plan a little bit. Our plan was to be balanced.”

On offense, Clemson’s 470 yards of offense were the most by an OSU opponent this season. The Tigers were led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, who completed 23 of 36 passes for 259 yards and a TD, and rushing 15 times for 57 yards and two more TDs — with celebrations after all three TDs.

“That’s why we play football, to have fun,” Watson said. “It’s hard to score touchdowns, especially against a great defense like that who don’t really give up a lot of points, so whenever you get in the end zone, you try to do a little bit — not too much that the ref is going to penalize you.”

Clemson fell just short in last season’s 45-40 loss to Alabama in Glendale, but Swinney has the Tigers knocking on that championship door once again.

“Alabama has been the standard. There’s really no argument to that, so sooner or later if you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat them,” he said. “We’ve been on a journey since 2009. It seems like once you kind of knock the lid off whatever barrier it is that you think is in place, you can do it again.”

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