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Clemson relishes its role as underdog

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Will Watson's Heisman dreams come to fruition? (0:36)

Heisman hopeful Deshaun Watson has Clemson in the national championship hunt after guiding the Tigers to the ACC championship. (0:36)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Less than 12 hours had passed since Dabo Swinney and his team arrived home following a second straight ACC title. Less than two hours had gone by since Clemson was officially included in the 2016 College Football Playoff. Swinney had just addressed a small crowd during halftime of a Clemson basketball game, and he was about to turn his attention to recruiting and bowl prep.

But first, he was asked about Ohio State, Clemson's opponent in the first round of the playoff and, at the moment of the announcement, the three-point favorite.

"We're underdogs already?" Swinney asked. "Can I at least have lunch first?"

Hey, Vegas moves fast. But despite Swinney's feigned objections, he wouldn't want it any other way. For Clemson, it's no fun without doubters to prove wrong.

History certainly suggests this is the Tigers' ideal role. Clemson has been an underdog just 12 times since 2012, but it has won six outright and covered the spread nine times. It's been an underdog in six straight bowl games now, too. It won four of those last five and came close against Alabama in last year's national championship. Even after back-to-back playoff appearances and a 58-9 record the last five years, "little old Clemson" -- as Swinney is apt to call it -- keeps sneaking up on people.

"Everybody has a true appreciation for these guys and what we've been able to do, but at the end of the day, I think people still see us as just that little old Clemson school," Swinney said. "We understand that, and we look forward to playing on the big stage."

Swinney probably isn't wrong. How else to explain the history of postseason underdog status? Last year, Clemson entered the playoff as the No. 1 team in the nation and a decided underdog to Oklahoma, a team it had walloped in a bowl game a year earlier -- also as an underdog.

But Clemson has also had its share of believers, and that can be a problem for a team that thrives by having a chip on its shoulder the size of a redwood. So when the masses have arranged themselves firmly behind the Tigers and pundits all predicted another big season for Clemson, Swinney still has found his critics. He's spent most of this season lambasting the media for doubting his team, for noting the too-close-for-comfort wins, for critiquing the statistics of everyone from the offensive line to Wayne Gallman to Artavis Scott to Deshaun Watson. The job requires an adversary.

The trickle-down effect is a team that has thoroughly embraced the lumber on its shoulder, even if it hasn't had much to fret about. Watson is a Heisman finalist for the second straight season and has been lauded as arguably the player most likely to ruin Alabama's season, but he's still playing angry.

"These folks in the media, they assume they know everything, but they really don't," Watson said after his team topped Virginia Tech in an ACC championship game in which the Tigers were the heavy favorite and picked to win by most national media.

Or look at the defense, a unit tasked with replacing eight starters from last year that has thrived amid the doubters.

"The defense carries a chip on its shoulder like the defense before, challenging each other after people are doubting us, saying we're not going to be the same defense," tackle Carlos Watkins said.

It's a funny thing how much both perceived and real criticism can bond a team together.

After Clemson's win over Wake Forest last month, linebacker Ben Boulware ruminated on the arduous job of climbing the mountain for a second straight year. The early mornings, the hot practices, the interminable film study -- all just to start fresh the next week and do it all again. This is a tough job, and external motivation helps.

"It's not easy," center Jay Guillermo said. "When you're here, you're the only guys on campus, during summer workouts and it's 100 degrees, it's not fun at all. But it's worth it at the end when you can stand at the top of the mountain."

Or when you can laugh as the critics get their comeuppance.

The truth is, Watson has thrown a few too many interceptions this year, and Clemson has played inferior teams close, and the defense did need a bunch of young players to step up. But Watson also delivered some of the prettiest passes of the year, the Tigers won enough of those close games to get back to the playoff, and the youngsters have blossomed into legitimate stars.

"We try not to listen to [the criticism], but you can't help but see it," Guillermo said. "And with that adversity, I feel like we're battle tested."

So question Clemson. Go ahead. Swinney wants you to. It's the push that gets that little extra out of his guys. Asking the question forces little old Clemson to find an answer.

Or don't do it. It won't matter much. Clemson will still play the role of outsider, the usurper of the throne. It likes the job too much to let it go.

"We moved into the nice neighborhood," Swinney said. "Some people don't like it, but we're here to stay."