Now that No. 2-ranked Clemson keeps defending its national championship by prospering in college football with no end in sight, this is unfair. I mean, the Tigers have everything. They really do, and just wait until they win it all over Alabama again, but I'm getting ahead of the story.
Let's start with what you probably already know involving the folks with The Rock on The Hill around their little South Carolina town featuring the same name as the university. Their game days are dominated by orange, tradition and 80,000 folks yelling like crazy for hours between eternal blasts of "Tiger Rag" from the marching band.
"The first time I experienced the whole thing, it was an overwhelming feeling," Christian Wilkins said over the phone from Clemson, where the junior defensive lineman of 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds is the epitome of your average player these days for the Tigers. He's aggressive, he's fast and he's focused on perfection, but he also enjoys every bit of his team's rise to prominence during the past three seasons. Take last Halloween, for instance, when he dressed as one of the Power Rangers before he knocked on the door of Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. After Wilkins chuckled with the memory, he said, "I'm always being silly, just to keep the mood light-hearted and fun."
So you want to know about fun? Clemson is fun, and I'm talking about the team and the city. Even though everybody is hugged tightly around that part of South Carolina, featuring orange paws lining the streets along the way to campus, Hunter Renfrow is the people's choice. At a scrawny 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, he looks more like one of the ballboys for the Tigers than their clutch receiver. He was explosive during Clemson's national championship game two seasons ago against Alabama, but his team dropped a 45-40 thriller near the end. Then came the rematch last season, when he scored the winning touchdown in a 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide for the title.
Afterward, Renfrow was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and you get the feeling that everybody in Pickens County bought a copy.
"I always thought it would be interesting to figure out how many times somebody asked me to sign that issue, and so I started to keep a little running total," Renfrow told me over the phone. "After the past few Saturdays, I think I'm up to 3,600. Yeah, it was a big jump right after the national championship. I signed about 2,000 in just that week, but it's tricked down since then."
If that isn't enough to tell you about Tiger fever, the university got enough money from the Clemson faithful and elsewhere to build a $55 million amusement park disguised as a football complex that rivals its NFL counterparts. Among other things, it features everything from a massive slide for players (you know, just because) when they aren't using the putt-putt golf course or the bowling alley near the massage tables. I won't even mention the facility also has a sand volleyball area for those not visiting the nap room or the other side of the place with everything from horseshoe pitching to laser tag.
The Clemson football experience isn't perfect, though. Have you ever tried to drive two or maybe three feet after a game at Memorial Stadium? You can't. You might as well spend the night in the solitude of that cemetery less than a first down from midfield of what they call Death Valley. That is, unless you're the 47-year-old Swinney, the local messiah for a ninth season. Surely the man who is just months away from leading Clemson to a third consecutive trip to both the College Football Playoff and the national championship game has a special way to maneuver through the worst traffic you'll ever see.
"No, I don't have some El Chapo tunnel out of the parking lot. I don't," Swinney said, laughing over the phone while referring to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the Mexican drug lord noted for great escapes from law enforcement folks. "I actually am usually the last person to leave, so nobody's in a hurry. I do the press conference, and then I do the TV show. I just go ahead and do all of that stuff, so hopefully, when that's all done, I have a little easier time getting out, but it really is hard getting out of here."
This is much harder: Beating Clemson, period. Just ask Auburn and Louisville, ranked 13th and 14th respectfully when they joined Kent State to push the Tigers to 3-0 this season. If you take away their loss after the 2015 season to Alabama in the national championship game, they've dropped only one game in the past two-plus seasons, and that was after Pittsburgh kicked a field goal in the final seconds at Clemson for a 43-42 victory. The Tigers have taken 11 straight games on the road, including last Saturday's 47-21 smashing of Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and his Louisville bunch.
Speaking of the Heisman Trophy, may I introduce you to Kelly Bryant? His Clemson predecessor, Deshaun Watson, never won the award, but he did take the Tigers to victory over Alabama in last season's title game while continuing to grab a slew of other honors. He's also the starting quarterback this year for the Houston Texans. Well, Bryant is faster and stronger than Watson, and then there is this: After the first three games last year (at Auburn, Troy and South Carolina State), Watson completed 62 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Bryant is completing 69 percent of his throws for two touchdowns and interception. Pretty similar.
In addition to Watson, the Tigers watched running back Wayne Gallman, wide receiver Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett depart from a splendid offense of the previous two seasons. There also was a talent implosion on defense with the loss of linebacker Ben Boulware, defensive end Carlos Watkins and secondary players Jadar Johnson and Cordrea Tankersley. They were all seniors, all outstanding and all yesterday's news after the Tigers kept showing that Swinney's recruiting ranks among the elite of the elite.
Like the Alabama elite.
That's the Alabama of Paul Bryant and the Alabama of Nick Saban, and Swinney knows much about both. After he grew up in the Birmingham area down the stretch of The Bear's dynasty (six national championship, 13 SEC titles), he became an Alabama walk-on as a wide receiver for Gene Stallings' national championship team in 1992. Now his Clemson program is rising as the equal to Saban's efficient squads that have managed four national championships for the Crimson Tide since the 2009 season.
Which begs the question: Is Swinney trying to turn Clemson into the Alabama of old or the Alabama of now?
"Well, uh. I much like to think we're trying to become the Clemson of new," Swinney said, with a chuckle. "I don't really think in that way. When I got the job eight years ago, my goal was just to become a consistent program. It was never to win the national championship. The goal was to be a program that is consistent year in and year out, because you have to be consistent in order to sustain anything. Nobody is ever going to say you're great at something, unless you are very consistent over a long period of time.
"I remember when we first won 10 games in 2011, it was the first time in 20 years to win 10 games here. It was the first time to win the ACC in 20 years, and I was like, 'That's OK, but let's put our heads down, and let's go have five, six, seven, 10 seasons with 10 wins. Then we can say we've done something.'"
Under Swinney, the Tigers are at six consecutive 10-win seasons and counting. Consider, too, that they are a financial miracle in college football. Despite their Taj Mahal of a complex, they sit at the lower end of most Top 25 programs when it comes to generating overall revenue.
"As we've had success, those things have improved for us, but we're still not Ohio State," Swinney said. "In fact, we've played Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame. We've played them all, and I've kind of told the players that if we break out the checkbook, we're going to get whipped. But at the end of the day, it doesn't come down to that. It's about team. It's about maximizing what you've got. It's about being the best version of you."
It's about Clemson on the verge of two-peating.