Gil LeBreton

Clemson’s mission impossible? Slaying the dragon that is Alabama

Coach Dabo Swinney and Clemson have a mighty task ahead of them, trying to beat Alabama.
Coach Dabo Swinney and Clemson have a mighty task ahead of them, trying to beat Alabama. AP

He didn’t need the lights or the cameras or the two TV crews from ESPN to remind him. Dabo Swinney understands what his mission is for Monday night.

“We’ve got to slay a dragon,” the Clemson Tigers coach said.

After a magical season of 14-0 perfection, Swinney and the Tigers find themselves staring up the nostrils of another fire-breathing Alabama team, standing at the drawbridge of a national championship.

How the Crimson Tide got to Arizona is no mystery. The Tide rolls in, the Tide rolls out. Coach Nick Saban’s team has enough four-stars and five-stars to fill a galaxy.

Want to know the difference between Alabama and everybody else? It’s the recruiting, stupid. Five-star recruits run faster and tackle better than three-star recruits. You can go to the trophy case outside of Saban’s office and look it up.

A dragon, indeed. But there are stories — aren’t there? — about dragons that were slain.

And this one would make a winsome fairy tale. Swinney, who once played on a national championship team at Alabama, will be trying to bring a College Football Playoff trophy back to a village that remains a relative dot on the national map.

Clemson, S.C., 34 miles from Greenville, is hard to get to even on the fairest of days.

But don’t let the Google maps fool you. Clemson has always been at the cusp of college football’s powerhouses.

“At Alabama,” Swinney explained, “they expect you to win the national championship every year.

“At Clemson, it’s only every other year.”

Swinney should know. This was his 13th season at Clemson, seventh full season as head coach.

“Both places are incredibly passionate,” he said, comparing Clemson to his alma mater. “I think that’s why it was such a great fit for me — the expectations were kind of just ingrained in me through 13 years of being in Tuscaloosa.

“When I came to Clemson, I felt like Clemson had the potential to be a great program again.”

Tradition, however, as Texas and Texas A&M have shown us, doesn’t always guarantee instant success. Swinney’s first Clemson team, the 2009 Tigers that lost in the rain to TCU, finished 9-5. His next team went 6-7.

But little triumphs, especially in bowl games, led to major strides in recruiting.

“We’ve just kind of been laying in the weeds for seven years, just doing what we do,” Swinney said. “We’re not here because of what happened this year. We’re here because of what’s happened for seven years and building the foundation of our program.

“We’re not just a flash in the pan.”

Make no mistake. Clemson will be a sentimental favorite when the two teams kick off at University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night.

Everybody loves an underdog, even a 14-0 one.

The ledger will show that Swinney’s team defeated Notre Dame 24-22, Florida State by 23-13, arch-rival South Carolina 37-32 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference title game over North Carolina 45-37.

Which proves you don’t have to bludgeon the dragon to death. Just defeat him.

“We’re going to win a national championship at Clemson,” Swinney assured Saturday. “Hopefully, it’s Monday night.

“But if it’s not, we’re going to be right back here. We’ll be somewhere, because we’re not going away. We have a program that’s built to stay right here in the hunt.”

Let the fairy tale’s final chapter begin.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, glebreton@

star-telegram.com,

@gilebreton

Alabama vs. Clemson

7:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN

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