Alabama had just knocked off another team on the way to another title, in a close and back-and-forth game. The coach of the opposing team, Dabo Swinney of Clemson, struck a defiant tone.
“We stand toe to toe with everybody in the country,” Swinney said in the moments after his team’s 45-40 loss to Alabama in January 2016. “This program doesn’t take a back seat to anybody.”
Two years later, after Georgia lost by three points to Alabama in the championship game, the words of Georgia coach Kirby Smart sounded like they were pulled from the same coaching seminar.
“Give them credit, but I think everybody can see that Georgia’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Smart said. “I’m very proud of this team and this university, and we’re not going anywhere.”
There was a reason for Smart to echo Swinney. Clemson came right back to beat Alabama and win the national championship a year later. When it comes to avoiding being on the wrong side of history forever, Clemson is a model.
In the last 20 years, since the advent of the BCS and then the College Football Playoff, the team that lost in the title game has only twice come back to win the whole thing the next year: Florida State in 1998-99 and Clemson in 2015-16.
It has more often happened that the title-game loser was a team that won the championship the previous season: Miami in 2002, USC in 2005, Alabama in 2017.
But to reach the championship game itself is an accomplishment. Unlike in college basketball, where a team can go on a five-game run into near immortality (Georgia Tech in 2003, for instance), it’s rare for a program to go from runner-up to out of the national conversation.
In the BCS and playoff era, the national runner-up list: Oklahoma three times, Florida State twice, Ohio State twice, Oregon twice, LSU, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Nebraska, Miami, USC, Texas, Auburn, Clemson, Alabama and now Georgia.
The only teams in that group that didn’t also win a championship in this era are Oregon, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Nebraska and, for the moment, Georgia.
There can be quick falloffs. Oregon went from appearing in the first CFP championship game to firing coach Mark Helfrich two seasons later. Nebraska, which lost in the title game after the 2001 season, has been mired in mediocrity for more than a decade.
It was Clemson that beat Nebraska to win a national title after the 1981 season, the year after Georgia’s last national title. Clemson was chasing that ghost for years, going through several coaches, until Swinney got the Tigers there two years ago.
After splitting two title bouts, Clemson and Alabama met in the playoff for a third straight time, in the national semifinal in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. At a promotional event with the four playoff coaches, Swinney and Nick Saban sat next to each other and joked about being together again for a third straight year. But this time they were joined by two other coaches — including Smart, who sat a couple seats over.
A month later, Alabama would be champion again, but the takeaway that many had was that Georgia would not be gone from this scene for very long.
“We try to set the standard high so the younger guys know where to take it from here,” Georgia senior tailback Sony Michel said after the game. “We fell short today, and I think guys that are coming back understanding what it’s going to take, plus more, to get back here.”