Reminders of Alabama motivate Clemson football players

CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson center Justin Falcinelli remembers the quiet, hollow feeling in the locker room after last season’s Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama.

He vowed not to forget it.

Not that Falcinelli could have even if he had wanted to do so. Clips of the 24-6 defeat to the Crimson Tide in last season’s national semifinal are played on the giant video board at the Tigers’ practice facility. Players regularly field questions from fans about the loss.

The reminders motivated the Tigers this season.

Now, No. 2 Clemson (14-0) gets another crack at No. 1 Alabama (14-0) on Monday night in the national championship game at Levi’s Stadium.

“It was a bit of a wake-up call,” Falcinelli said of the loss. “It’s driven us to say, ‘We did well, but there was still clearly plenty of room to improve.’ We’ve been focusing on that.”

Falcinelli said reflecting on the Alabama loss — Clemson has lost two of three CFP games to the Crimson Tide — was part of the routine during winter workouts, spring drills and summer weightlifting sessions.

“There’s always stuff to remind you why you’re working” to improve, Falcinelli said.

Last year’s Alabama-Clemson matchup was the latest episode in the dramatic series, during which the teams have traded nail-biting wins in championship games, Alabama 45-40 in January 2016 and Clemson 35-31 on a last-second TD pass 12 months later.

But unlike in those two games, Clemson’s offense could not get going against Alabama’s fearsome defense last season. Kelly Bryant threw two interceptions, both of which led to Crimson Tide touchdowns, and the Tigers ran for just 64 yards.

“That left a sour taste in our mouths,” Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant said.

Bryant, a senior who has been part of all three playoff games with Alabama, said the players did not spend all their time consumed with losing to the Tide. They were more bothered that, as defending national champions, they had not lived up to their potential after the 2017 season.

What that means, Bryant said, was preparing with success in mind.

It’s something Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney mentions to his players: keeping their eyes on themselves when possible.

“At the end of the day, we just try to be the best version of us, and we’re not trying to live up to anybody else’s standard,” Swinney said. “We’ve got our own standard here.”

Clemson brings a different quarterback into the matchup with freshman Trevor Lawrence taking Kelly Bryant’s spot. Lawrence was named the starter in late September and, days later, Bryant left the program, transferring to Missouri.

Lawrence has led Clemson’s offense on a high-scoring run. The Tigers have averaged more than 45 points a game in his 10 starts, including a 30-3 win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday to advance. Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns.

Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams said the Tide will have their hands full stopping Clemson.

“They have the capacity to beat us every year,” he said. “They did my freshman year and almost did the year before. So you have to play your best and you have to execute.”

Pete Iacobelli is an Associated Press writer.


Who: Alabama (14-0)

vs. Clemson (14-0)

When: 5 p.m. Monday

Where: Levi’s Stadium

TV/Radio: ESPN/680

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