TAMPA, Fla.—The view from the edge of the cliff served as a great lesson for Clemson's football team.
It was on Nov. 12. The Tigers played a sloppy second half against Pittsburgh, blowing an eight-point fourth-quarter lead. Clemson couldn't convert on a fourth-and-1 when running back Wayne Gallman was bottled up at the line of scrimmage. Eventually, Pittsburgh kicker Chris Blewitt nailed a 48-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 43-42 upset.
In the unforgiving system that is college football's playoff structure, the Tigers looked cooked after a single loss. Then a series of upsets of other contenders in the following hours threw them right back into the championship mix.
Clemson senior linebacker Ben Boulware now calls that loss the Tigers' "mulligan." More accurately, it was a warning call. It provided a platform for the senior class to be even more assertive in leadership.
"Afterward, we couldn't wait to get back to the practice field, back to a game. We couldn't wait to get into the meetings. Everything was so intensified," sophomore defensive end Christian Wilkins recalled.
"(The seniors) said, 'We want to go out the right way.' "
This was a departure from the previous season, when Clemson lost the national championship game to Alabama 45-40 in Glendale, Ariz. The Tigers entered that game with injuries, but there was also a sense some of the players headed to the NFL had moved on emotionally. Clemson's motto is "All In," but that didn't universally seem the case in 2015.
This time around was very different. The pain of that title-game loss sharpened the focus of this team's stars. The players who could most get away with cruising on talent instead became the most accountable in the group. Players such as Boulware, Gallman, quarterback Deshaun Watson, center Jay Guillermo and wide receiver Mike Williams took charge.
At any level of sports, the teams that police themselves, who don't constantly expect the coaches to set the standard or enforce the rules, have an edge. The NBA San Antonio Spurs were a dynasty not just because of their collective talent, but because superstar Tim Duncan accepted coaching in a way Gregg Popovich could be tough on him as an example to the rest of the group.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn't have to enforce much discipline this season because the seniors took charge before most problems developed.
Swinney has a system of "accountability runs"—additional running when players get out of line. It became obsolete last spring.
"Nobody had to run. I've never had that, ever!" Swinney said. "Somebody always did something: late for class or not wear the right thing in the weight room. But we had zilch (transgressions) the first three runs we had scheduled."
That approach has endured, sending Clemson to a 13-1 record, the ACC championship and a title-game rematch with Alabama Monday night at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.
"This has been the easiest team to coach, the funnest team I've coached," Swinney said. "They love each other. It's obvious to watch it every day. They've responded when we challenged them. It's been a very player-led group."
An example: Boulware has become the defense's alarm clock. Last Tuesday, he went to bed at 8 p.m. to make sure he was fully rested. He texted the defensive unit early Wednesday morning, prodding them to meet him an hour before a 9 a.m. media obligation to watch extra game film.
Attendance wasn't mandatory, Wilkins recalled, but everyone was there.
"If you don't treat each practice session or film session like the biggest game of the year, I think you're doing a disservice to yourself and the rest of your team," Boulware said.
On offense, Watson—a two-time Heisman finalist and a projected high NFL pick—has similarly prodded teammates to stay hungry, stay sharp.
"The leadership has been just awesome, coming from all the seniors and guys who've been there and done that," said Watson, who graduated in December. "Coaching up and teaching up the young guys, making sure they're doing the right things."
The tone has certainly registered on sophomore Wilkins, who could be a key factor against Alabama's imposing offensive line.
"Guys might not always want to do that now," Wilkins said of the early-morning film sessions. "But 10 or 12 years down the line, they're going to be happy they did all they did if we win the national championship."