CHARLOTTE, N.C. — From the first practice of spring camp, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney made one thing very clear to his team — they were not defending anything.

It seems like a strange statement  to make given that the Tigers just two months before claimed their first national championship in 35 years, making them the defending national champions. But for Swinney, the word defending brought with it a sense of complacency.

“Everything coming into the spring was, 'Oh, man, you won a national championship, how do you stay focused?' We had checked the box, so now we're going to quit working at Clemson,” Swinney said. “What else? We're going to go lay on the beach or something.

“People don't realize, we got a bunch of motivated individuals. What we accomplished is something that's really motivating to go do it again.”

Swinney chose another word to when asked about how his 2017 team would handle being the “defending national champions” — attack.

He said that the 2017 Clemson football team was not defending anything, they were attacking another championship. Now, after securing their third straight ACC Championship and a third straight berth in the College Football Playoff, Swinney is not changing his tune — his Tigers are still on the hunt.

'No, we're the attacking champs. We're attacking for another one,” Swinney said. “That's been our mindset all year. We're not defending anything. I mean, like I said earlier in the year, if we had the same team back, but we've got a different team. We're attacking to try to go win another one.”

The Tigers will get their opportunity to win a second straight national title as they secured the No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff final ranking of the regular season — as well as the final Associated Press Top 25 and Amway Coaches Poll.

But before the Tigers can “attack” a second straight national championship, they must  get through the Alabama Crimson Tide, who will face the Tigers for a third straight season — this time in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day (8:45 p.m., ESPN) in New Orleans.

All that stands between the Tigers and a shot at the national championship is four quarters of football, which Swinney understands will be the most difficult four quarters of the year.

“What's hard is when you play a great team,” Swinney said. “It's hard. Any time you play a great team, it's really, really hard. But, you know, in our conference there's certain teams we play every single year that, you know -- you just know it's going to be a heck of a battle. Even though Alabama is not in our conference, I mean, any time you line up to play those guys, you know it's going to be an "everything you got" type of game. But we look forward to it”

Even though the Tigers are the “defending” national champions, having just won their conference and securing the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, it is clear the Tigers will once again find themselves playing a familiar role when they face off against Alabama — the role of the underdog.

While the Crimson Tide did not even win their division, the Tigers find themselves as an early 2.5-point underdog, which for Swinney is exactly what he expected — and the way the motivational guru likes it.

“I mean, Alabama -- pretty much everybody plays Alabama is probably going to be an underdog. So that just kind of comes with it,” Swinney said. “But you know, we're going to get ready and do what we do. You know, none of that stuff really matters. It just comes down to how you play on that day, and we've been fortunate to find a way to win a bunch of those games. It's all about this one."

Underdog or not, the Tigers are the team to beat. They are the defending and attacking national champions and any team that wants to remove them from their spot atop the college football world will ultimately have to go through them.

“You got to take care of business. We're four quarters away,” Swinney said. “We worked all year to have this opportunity. We've earned it. We look forward to playing on that stage and putting our best foot forward.”

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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