SUNSET, S.C. — Clemson’s disappointing loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff last January is never far from players’ minds as they prepare for the upcoming season.
“It definitely helps,” kicker Greg Huegel said. “It’s something in the back of your mind to help you push through.”
If that’s the case, the Tigers have received plenty of motivation from the Crimson Tide the past few seasons.
After coming close in a 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national title game following the 2015 season, the Tigers bounced back the next year with a thrilling 35-31 win in a CFP championship rematch.
Part three of the playoff drama took place this past New Year’s Day, with Alabama’s defense accounting for a pair of third-quarter TDs in a 24-6 win.
It may be Clemson’s time to rally from a playoff loss.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) July 17, 2018
“They’ll be reminded of the shortcomings,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said about Clemson players on Tuesday. “We don’t want to focus on the disappointments, but we also have to make sure that we own them, that we’re honest about them.”
Most of Clemson’s problems last year came on offense, where new starting quarterback Kelly Bryant showed poise and toughness on the ground, but inconsistency through the air.
The Tigers finished with 3,297 yards passing, their fewest in a season since 2010.
Bryant was battered by ‘Bama , held to 124 yards passing and forced into two costly interceptions.
It’s an experience the rising senior has worked to overcome this offseason, according to quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter.
Streeter challenged Bryant to grow as a leader and not take a backseat to more experienced players. They also have worked on quicker reads and improvement on identifying coverages to take advantage when the defense lets open receivers through.
Kelly will be pushed this August by freshman Trevor Lawrence, an early enrollee who surpassed the Georgia prep records for total yards and touchdowns of Clemson’s national championship star Deshaun Watson.
The challenges only make Bryant dig in harder to come out on top, his position coach said.
“When Kelly’s back is against the wall, he always seems to get better,” Streeter said.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney does not want to dwell on their latest season-ending loss, his second in three CFP meetings against the Crimson Tide.
Biding time. pic.twitter.com/080KHr8Al0
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) July 12, 2018
“We learn from it. It’s disappointing at the time,” Swinney said. “But a lot of those guys aren’t here anymore. It’s a new team with new challenges.”
Swinney, defensive end Clelin Ferrell and left tackle Mitch Hyatt will appear at Atlantic Coast Conference media days in Charlotte, North Carolina, which start Wednesday.
Right guard Sean Pollard, a junior this fall, believes his teammates must focus more on correcting the mistakes they made against Alabama instead of the final result.
“It motivated us a lot, but I don’t think it’s all about that loss. It’s about what we did wrong,” Pollard said. “We played and Alabama was better that night. It definitely fuels the fire. We’re all a bunch of older guys and we all know what it takes to get to the top of the mountain.”
Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said the coaching staff has broken down the mistakes from the CFP loss and corrected what they could during spring drills. They also sent their players off with specific guidelines on how to improve heading into fall camp on Aug. 3.
Elliott, who also coaches running backs in addition to his coordinator responsibilities alongside Jeff Scott, felt the disappointment of not having an answer against Alabama’s defense last winter.
He is certain the players — the Tigers return 15 of 22 starters from last year’s ACC champions — still feel that frustration, too, and will channel it into perhaps a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff meeting with Alabama.
And maybe another national crown forged from a disappointing loss.
“I think you saw a lot of guys decide to come back because they had some unfinished business,” he said. “It’d be unfair to say yet that we’ll have the same (championship) result, but there are a lot of similarities.”