CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Have the No. 1 Clemson Tigers finally surpassed the Alabama Crimson Tide as the premier program in college football?
While that question may be deemed as fighting words for many in the South, for ESPN College GameDay host Rece Davis, the Tigers have already established themselves as the new kings of college football regardless of the outcome of the ACC Championship Game Saturday (8:14 p.m., ABC) against the Miami Hurricanes.
"You could make the argument that Clemson is taking over the sport as the premier dynasty,” Davis said. “Alabama has been longer, but, if they can win, they'll have won their third straight ACC championship, go to the playoff for the third straight year, have the chance to go back-to-back national championships if they were to win. It'll be a challenge, I'm not saying it's a foregone conclusion.”
Clemson’s rise to dominance in the college football world has not occurred overnight — it has been a road that began, according to Davis’ co-star Kirk Herbstreit, in the 2012 Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Clemson upset the No. 8 LSU Tigers 25-24 on a last-second field goal by Chandler Catanzaro. It was that game for Herbstreit that signaled that Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney was on the verge of building not just a great team but a great program that would last.
"I've had a front-row seat to watch this and be behind the scenes with Dabo and his team, and watch them go from being on the outside to now being in that upper tier,” Herbstreit said. “I think they have to be right there. Not just the last two years, but really this goes back to I think it was LSU they beat in a bowl game. From that point on, just go back and look at the names of the schools that they have beaten and the conferences in which they play in.
“How can you not put Clemson among the elite? I still think they are gaining momentum. I still don't think that people quite get how long they've been around, but whether they win or lose this game, for me, they're already at that top tier in the country."
The Tigers can further state their case with a victory over the seventh-ranked Hurricanes — notching a fourth win this season over a team ranked in the College Football Playoff top 25 team.
The fact that the Tigers have been able to put together as impressive of a season — rising to the consensus No. 1 team in the country and reaching the ACC title game for a third straight year — is still shocking to many in the national media.
The Tigers lost so many pieces off last year’s team but have avoided the “year-after” lull that plagues many teams.
“Think about when we walked out of that national championship in Tampa and we were looking at that team and celebration and you think about some of those players that walked off that field and you'll never see them in a Clemson uniform again -- led by Deshaun (Watson),” Herbstreit said. “To their credit, the thing that is remarkable is that they didn't lose their edge. Sometimes when you climb the mountain, you finally get there and its human nature that you lose a little bit -- they didn't at all.
Give (quarterback) Kelly Bryant a lot of credit for dealing with the pressure to fill the shoes of Deshaun Watson. When you look back at what they accomplished this year, and who knows what's ahead of them, but up to this point, as an outsider I'm blown away by what they've done."
The play of quarterback Bryant has not only surprised Herbstreit — it surprised Davis as well.
But according to Davis, the Tigers held the proverbial “trump card” at another position group that enabled Clemson to bring Bryant along — eventually developing into the type of quarterback that could lead the Tigers back to the promised land.
“Now it might have been true last year and was certainly true this year, the most dominant and devastating position group in all of college football is the Clemson defensive front. That's going to keep you in a lot of games, regardless of who's playing quarterback,” Davis said. “But Kelly's development and steady hand over the course of the season, stepping in for a guy that won the national championship for them last year.
“Let's be honest about that, if that's not Deshaun Watson over there, they probably don't win. But he was and they did, and for (Bryant) to be able to step in and play with pretty good level of consistency over the course of the season and be as important as he is from a leadership standpoint is really, really impressive.”
With everything on the line for the Tigers and the Hurricanes in this year’s ACC Championship Game, both Davis and Herbstreit believe Clemson carries at-least one major advantage into the contest — it has “been there and done that” and is playing its best football of the season.
“I think familiarity with the setup and buildup in these type of games -- they've kind of been there and done that. So I think that helps them and I think coming in they know how to process that (buildup),” Herbstreit said. “The other thing is, I think they're just a great team. I think they're playing at, coming off the game they played last week, they are dangerous--for anybody to play. You would have to say they have an edge coming in."
ESPN GameDay originates Saturday morning from Charlotte, site of the ACC Championship Game.