FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Dabo Swinney made a guarantee in the late hours of an early January day two years ago.
Before a locker room half full of freshmen, the Tigers' head coach had to the find the words to say after a 37-point defeat at the hands of West Virginia. For the first time since, a No. 12 Clemson (10-2) team returns to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., as an underdog to No. 7 Ohio State (12-1).
Everybody knows the 'Paw' now
"To go back for the second time in 31 years, I told the guys I was very disappointed with the outcome of (that) game," Swinney said, "but the message was it wasn't going to be 31 years until we're back in the Orange Bowl. I promise you that. It's good to have a chance to be back and we need to get a better result."
One of those freshmen in the room was Tigers' star receiver Sammy Watkins, who is looking to put his stamp on a better performance in a south Florida homecoming.
"It did (sting) a lot. I had a lot of people at that game," South Fort Myers (Fla.) product Watkins said. "We had a great season, but for us, it was more of an embarrassment because half of our team stopped playing. That was the downfall. I didn't see guys giving that effort at the end of the game.
"For us, we have a totally different team now and (we'll) go out and handle our business."
In his last media session this week, Swinney fielded almost a third of the questions about the fateful result, which the Tigers are 730 days and 25 games separated from now. The game, however, did give Clemson a taste of the kind of postseason they set out for each season – and were able to reach again quickly.
"It was still a great experience for our guys," Swinney said. "One thing I told our team after the game is you grow and learn from everything. It doesn't always go according to plan for any of us in here, in life or certainly in football. It's how you respond to those things.
"We spent eight months after that year, I mean, we were the worst team in America. We just played in a BCS Bowl, won the ACC first time in 20 years, won 10 games first time in 20-something years, but we were this bad football team. We're 21-4 since that game, and those four losses have been to top-10 teams. We've had our fair share of those top-10 wins along the way as well."
In fact, a win tonight would be a third top-10 win in that span, while reaching 11 wins overall for a second consecutive season would be a school-first.
Ohio State is coming off only their second loss since a couple days before the 2012 Orange Bowl, as winners 24-of-25 under second-year coach Urban Meyer. It wasn’t just any loss though, falling a victorious 60 minutes short from a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
Meyer says Clemson has the name recognition now to hold his players' attention, and the stage also plays a factor in motivation.
"If it was against an opponent that maybe didn't have the flash and the talent that Clemson has (motivation could be an issue)," he said. "That's a very good question, and it's true. We've dealt with that before at the Sugar Bowl, and when I was in Florida, we just missed playing for a National Championship, lost the title game and they came back and responded very well.
"I credit that to the quality of the Sugar Bowl. Our players understand that this is, and by the way they're treated, that this is big time football...Obviously, the final results will be tomorrow night."
Ohio State enters the contest down its leader in sacks (defensive end Noah Spence, 7.5; suspension) and likely down its leader in passes defended (cornerback Bradley Roby, 16; knee injury). And they were up against it defensively with their stars on hand, matching a pass defense ranked in the triple digits (No. 103) against a Tigers' attack running up 329 yards passing a game (No. 11).
Swinney and co., however, have kept their eyes off Ohio State's lacking numbers and more on their record and talent – and then back on Clemson.
"I love our guys at our position at receiver," he said. "They're dynamic players. But they've got to play well. They're going to have to with what Ohio State does defensively, they challenge you, and you have to go make plays.
"Listen, it's hard to see a lot of advantages when you look at a football team that's 24-1. Everybody is picking at different things. Okay, obviously, if you just look at the statistics, you'd say, yeah, well, they've not had the type of year they want defensively in the passing game, but a lot of it is people can't run the ball on them."
Ohio State ranks No. 7 nationally in run defense (102.62), while Clemson hasn't rushed for less than 120 yards this season (15-0 with at least 150 rushing yards the last two seasons).
On the other side of the ball, the challenge for Brent Venables' unit is containing the two-headed monster of Buckeyes junior quarterback Braxton Miller and senior running back Carlos Hyde. Miller has totaled 2,893 all-purpose yards with 32 touchdowns to five interceptions. Hyde has rushed for 1,408 yards in only 10 games.
"Probably our biggest challenge physically of the year because they're physical on the perimeter," said Venables. "And the quarterback is a physical runner. He's big and super-fast. We haven't faced anybody with his type of speed at the quarterback as well. You can probably compare him to Vince Young and Cedric Benson (formerly at Texas). Two big, powerful guys with top-end speed and good power to run between the tackles."
In the final go-round for Clemson's best senior class since 1991 (37 wins), Swinney expects nothing less than a grand finale.
"If we could have all gone back to February of '09 and I just laid it all on the table the list of things that were going to happen these five years," Swinney said. "Y'all would have all thought we were crazy. It was unthinkable at the time. I've talked about that a lot this year with our guys. It wasn't to them. They deserve the credit. It's amazing the things that they've accomplished. They've changed Clemson."