"Last year’s national champion was 14-1. This year’s national champion is 14-1," he said on Monday, Jan. 11. "We stand toe-to-toe with everybody in the country. This program doesn’t take a back seat to anybody. We can play with anybody. We can beat anybody, and that’s a fact.”
That was a fact. And they proved it 363 days later by knocking off almighty Alabama. Swinney was simply stating the obvious, because everyone — especially those in the Clemson locker room — already knew the Tigers could play with anyone, but it proved to be a perfectly simple reminder, one that Clemson carried with them throughout the 2016 season and into January's rematch with the Tide.
Now that they're national champions, what's an appropriate quote for Clemson in 2017? Here is one quote for the Tigers and each other top-25 team that fits their 2017 quest.
Head coach Mike Riley on new Huskers' quarterback Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane who's been lauded all offseason by coaches and teammates as a respected leader who embodies the humility throughout the locker room.
“People initially just felt comfortable with him. “You could tell that was the case. And then through time, he also became well-respected because he was a worker, took great pride — which is interesting — being the scout team quarterback after having started games in college already."
This quote actually comes from August 2016 but it applies now more than ever. Pat Fitzgerald said then-junior running back Justin Jackson — who now has 4,129 career rushing yards — remains incredibly underrated, largely because Northwestern needs to do a better job of convincing people that they're a good, stable program who can contend for Big Ten West titles.
“We need to do a better job of helping him become a household name. You can’t fault the media. Think about the junior and senior running backs in this league the past few years.”
23. Boise State
Despite 31 wins over the last three years and one of the nation's best returning quarterbacks, Boise State is receiving shockingly little national love. Head coach Bryan Harsin acknowledges his program need to prove critics wrong but also notes they're long past their underdog status from a decade ago.
“I don’t think we have to sit there and say we have the target on our back or that we’re the underdog. But what I do know is we have a lot to prove.”
22. Kansas State
"We are always underrated."
21. South Florida
South Florida has the talent and schedule to go undefeated, and while they'll have a tough time contending for a playoff bid, there are a lot of friendly and gaudy expectations for the Bulls in year one of the Charlie Strong era. But Strong (below) and his players insist they're not feeling it, which — if true — is a valuable approach for a team that should go 13-0 and represent the Group of Five in a New Year's Six bowl.
"I just want us to be a really good football team. I just want us to improve each and every day, each and every game. I just want us to come out, play and have fun doing it. Just have us a really good football team at USF. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. But it’s all about guys playing together, but I’ll have to motivate and lead them."
20. Miami (FL)
Miami hasn't won 10 games in a season or a conference title since 2003. And much of the last 14 years have been filled with "The U is back!" proclamations, which proved to be wrong.
"The U is back."
19. Notre Dame
Notre Dame wasn't as bad as their 4-8 record suggests. Still, you don't win four games at Notre Dame and keep rolling with the status quo. Brian Kelly made significant changes, including hiring two new coordinators.
"My ego does not need to be satiated in any shape or fashion. I want to win for Notre Dame. That’s why I did this and made the tough decisions that I made. If I wanted to call the offense, I would’ve just kept those guys and said, ‘Hey move over I’m coaching.’ I want to win for Notre Dame and that’s why I made these decisions.”
18. Washington State
Washington State went 7-2 in the Pac-12 and returns talent at almost every level on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Luke Falk. However, the Cougars are still considered a long shot to surpass Washington in the division.
“Win more conference games than everybody."
Another offseason, another wave of questions for a Florida offense that could not find their groove a year ago. The Gators averaged 23.9 points and 344 yards per game in 2016, 107th and 116th in the FBS, respectively. Transfer quarterback Malik Zaire says the talent is there to take a big step forward.
"We have the best talent in the country and I think we are the big dogs in the SEC. We’re looking to take the challenges from whoever comes up. This team is pretty confident.”
Michigan started last season 9-0 and was barreling toward the playoff. Then came a one-point loss to Iowa and double-overtime loss at Ohio State, which officially ended their playoff hopes. It hurt badly, as did the parade of departures that have some wondering if Harbaugh and Co. will take a step back.
One reason he thinks they won't regress? That loss in Columbus.
"I’m glad that happened. Hopefully that’ll motivate us to do better.”
Eight months ago, LSU ended their strange 2016 season on a high note by dismantling Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the Citrus Bowl. This December, the Tigers expect to be playing in the national semifinal, not a mid-level bowl game.
“Coach O told us in the locker room it’s a great win, but next season, things are going to be different." offensive lineman Will Clapp said. “We’re going to be in it (College Football Playoff)."
Lamar Jackson threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns and ran for another 1,571 yards and 21 scores. He won the Heisman Trophy — during a season in which he admits he didn't always a plan and oftentimes struggled effectively running the offense.
Now, Jackson says, he's ready to actually play. Terrifying, right?
“I know what I’m doing now."
All three of Wisconsin's losses last season came against teams who finished in the top 10 of the CFP rankings. They lost each game by one touchdown. While their schedule is significantly easier in 2017, it doesn't matter to tight end Troy Fumagalli or his teammates.
"We understand that, at the end of the day, it's going to come down to how well we're playing, not necessarily about who we're playing against. I think the battle's within."
Jacob Eason may not have been fully ready to take over as Georgia's starting quarterback last season — and he struggled often — but the thrown-into-the-fire year could prove to be very valuable for the playoff-seeking Dawgs.
“Obviously it was a huge jump going from Washington high school football to the SEC. But, like I said before, I’m glad I did it. It was a challenge but it was a challenge worth doing.”
Washington went 7-6 in 2015 and their starting quarterback Jake Browning was barely .500 as a starter. The Huskies, however, were a consensus preseason top-25 team and a trendy playoff pick. Browning, coming off a season in which he contended for the Heisman and the Huskies reached the playoff, knows they must stay focused and ignore the noise.
"Yeah, complacency will kill you no matter who you are. Last year we had hype and I was barely above .500 as a starter. So I think complacency, if you start reading into too much about yourself and how great you are, I don’t care who you are, that’s going to start to effect you.
Stanford lost one of the best players in college football history in Christian McCaffrey, yet they expect to be even better than last year, when they went 10-3 and climb into the AP Top 10. One huge reason is McCaffrey's replacement, Bryce Love, who David Shaw and some others knew was electric.
"We have a chance to be a better team than we were a year ago. A complete team, even though we lose two of the better players in the nation last year."
9. Penn State
Quotes are supposed to be from inside the program. We're making an exception here and welcoming Penn State rival coach Urban Meyer to the party. He said in August that Penn State deserved to be in the playoff, which the Nittany Lions are gunning for again in 2017.
"Should they have belonged in that playoff? Absolutely."
Oklahoma returns a Heisman-contending quarterback, elite offensive line, All-American candidate at tight end and a bunch of defensive studs. The Sooners, however, are not a favorite for the playoff — or even an overwhelming Big 12 champion pick.
"Y'all are going to have to show some respect for my receivers. People saying I don't have help, say what you want about me. Not my guys."
Auburn's offense has been laced with high-end talent the last few years, yet the Tigers haven't been able to put the pieces together, largely because of poor quarterback play. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham might be the answer, and he knows if he can facilitate, they have enough playmakers.
"We have playmakers everywhere on the field. I think all the pieces of the puzzle are there. I think it’s just a matter of time, getting everybody on the same page. The ultimate goal is to win the SEC. Everything after that just takes care of itself.”
Without Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams and others, Clemson faces an uphill battle to defend their national championship. Except, according to Dabo Swinney, they're not defending it.
“We’re not defending a national championship. We don’t talk about that,” Dabo Swinney said in March. “We’re chasing another one. Last year is over. We’ve got a lot of champions on this team, but this team has its own journey, and it’s totally separate from last year.”
Oklahoma State may have the best offense in the country. It's their defense that has some questioning if they can win the Big 12 and grab a playoff spot. Senior linebacker Chad Whitener said they're using that explosive offense to get better before they take a Week 1 snap.
“We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of minutes against some high-potent offenses, and we have a high-potent offense as well. “Going against these guys and doing what we do all the time just gets us ready to take on everything. We’re ready to go.”
USC hasn't seriously contended for national championship in nearly a decade. With Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones, Iman Marshall and others back on a roster laced with potential All-Americans, the Trojans are facing championship expectations in 2017.
Good, says second-year head coach Clay Helton.
"We know the expectations. We welcome them. We look at it as an opportunity, not an obligation. We came to USC to win championships and that will always be our goal.”
As gigantic as Florida State's Week 1 matchup with Alabama is, their playoff fate won't be decided with that game, win or lose.
Last year, the Seminoles erased an early deficit against Ole Miss and were quickly anointed ACC favorites and a playoff contender. They lost three of their next five games. Jimbo Fisher has been using last year's collapse as a teaching tool.
"I think last year will hopefully make us understand that it's not only a one-game deal at the beginning, that it's going to be all the way through and that first half of the season."
2. Ohio State
Ohio State was embarrassed by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. The 31-0 loss was the program's first shutout since 1993 (295 games) and the first-ever for Urban Meyer. Now-senior center Billy Price said Meyer was responsibly pissed off.
“Coach Meyer likes to use the word ‘angry.' He was very angry after that loss. Not like tantrum or flipping-out angry. But there’s a lot of accountability he took over that.”
Nick Saban appreciates the love and reverence for his Alabama program, but does not appreciate constant predictions, even if they're friendly. The Tide, of course, are gunning for another national championship and Saban does not care what happened last year or this offseason.
“I've complained on many occasions about people who make (preseason) predictions, that there's no basis at all for,” Saban said. “There's no basis at all for any predictions. I appreciate the fact that people acknowledge the team, but at the same time this team has a lot to prove. And until you do it, you basically haven't proved much of anything.