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APTOPIX CFP National Championship Clemson Alabama Football

Clemson's Travis Etienne celebrates after the College Football Playoff Championship 44-16 win over Alabama on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.

For Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, there is a reason his program has been able to maintain dominance regardless of the opponent: The Tigers make a big deal out of the little things.

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"Well, I think a couple things. One, we're the same," Swinney said. "We're not asking them to be perfect, but there is a winning performance at each position. If you're a wideout, that winning grade for us is 85%. If you're a linebacker, it's 80%. If you're a D-lineman, it's 75.

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"We have a grade. We make a big deal out of that. It's not who we play, it's how we play, and that's what we talk about."

It is that belief that helped the Tigers amass a 15-0 record last season while capturing their second national title in the last three seasons.

Clemson has a 103-22 record in the decade of the 2010s. That computes to an 82.4 winning percentage, the best for any decade in school history and the first time Clemson has won more than 80% in a single decade.

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In the 1980s, Clemson had a 76.7 winning percentage (87-25-4), the nation’s fifth best. Clemson did not have a losing season in any year in the 1980s under head coach Danny Ford, who coached every game in those 10 years.

Swinney has coached every game in the decade of the 2010s and has eight winning seasons and one losing season (6-7 in 2010).

But it is not just the fact that the Tigers make every game about themselves and not the opponent that helps them amass wins at a record-setting pace.

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"And then the other thing is, so accountability to that winning performance, number one, and then the other thing is we make every game the biggest game of the year," Swinney said. "People don't like to hear that during the week, but if you don't have that mindset, then that creeps in. Fans have that mindset. They look at the schedule and they go, oh, well, you're playing Eastaboga State this week, well, now we don't have to practice hard.

"Oh, we're playing Alabama this week, okay, let's really meet, let's really practice hard. And if that's your culture, then you're going to be like this all the time. But when you make every game the biggest game of the year, and in college football it is the biggest game of the year. Everybody wants to expand these playoffs. We've had a playoff since September. Every game has been a playoff game to get to this point.

"Every game. If we'd have lost to whoever, we're probably not here. If we had lost to Pitt in the ACC Championship, we're not (in the championship). If we had lost to South Carolina we're not (in the championship). Every game is a playoff game."

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The Tigers became the first team in the modern era to record 15 wins in a season in 2018. The last major college football team to finish 15-0 was Penn in 1897.

The 15 wins represent a school and ACC record. The Tigers accounted for three of the four 14-win seasons in ACC history.

Clemson’s 1981 national championship team was the first ACC team to win 12 games in a season. Florida State accomplished the feat five times between 1993 and 2014, including a streak of three seasons with at least 12 wins from 2012-14. They won a then-record 14 games (14-0) in 2013, a mark tied by Clemson in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Regardless which teams the 2019 Tigers beat, or what they look like on offense or defense, they will have one thing in common with every other Clemson team since 2009 -- the mindset that Swinney has worked so hard to entrench in the program.

"You just try to play the very best that you can," Swinney said. "And so when you get in these moments, whether it's a huge game late in the season, both teams are undefeated, a lot on the line, whatever, it's just the next big moment, because every week has been a huge moment. So that's a mindset that you have to create, and you've got to get the young people to buy into and the coaches to buy into, and that tone is set from the head coach.

"You're going to get everybody's best every week. So if you don't show up with that mindset, you're inconsistent. I think however we do it, that's what's created the consistency in our program for sure."

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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. He also serves as a co-host of Solid Orange, seen at 11 p.m. Wednesdays on WACH FOX 57 in Columbia. He is editor of www.ClemsonMaven.io

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