NEW ORLEANS -- Dabo Swinney walked into a dejected Clemson locker room long after he finished his media responsibilities, his players still trying to process what had happened on the field just moments earlier.
He walked around the room and approached each player he saw. Some had tear-stained cheeks, others had blank expressions. Swinney gave them hugs, words of encouragement, pats on the back, and a vow they would be back.
"It's always about what is next," Swinney told reporters during his postgame comments. "And we're going to learn and grow and always get better. And my expectation is to be right back here next year, right back in the middle of it, right back in the thick of it. We have got a heck of a team coming back. We're going to have a much more experienced team next year than we had this year. And they will be eager to get back to work."
Nothing should be surprising about that statement. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell echoed those same thoughts when he declared, "Regardless if we had a win or a loss, everybody in this locker room knows that in the future the best is yet to come.
"It's just how we're built. It's the culture here. It's always what's next, and regardless of whatever the present is, we're always looking on to bigger and better things. That's just the mindset and how we think here."
Perspective is tough to have when the season ends as suddenly as it did Monday night. Clemson lost 24-6 to Alabama in the College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl about as thoroughly as a team could lose: It was outplayed, outcoached and completely, physically dominated.
But four months ago, few people expected Clemson and Alabama to get to a Part III. Florida State was the preseason choice to win the ACC and the popular pick to make it to the playoff. The storyline went that Clemson, without Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett, Mike Williams and a host of others, simply had too many good players to replace.
Then the season began, and Clemson finished a tough September stretch undefeated, with Top-25 wins against Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech. Suddenly, the Tigers played the same part they did last season and the season before that. Suddenly, another playoff game against Alabama seemed inevitable.
"The previous two years, we've had a lot of success," defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said through tears. "We've been through a lot. I've had the most fun playing on this team this year because no one expected us to be in this position. A lot of people counted us out before this year. We would have been in the Potato Bowl if it was up to everybody else. But we fought hard, guys just worked, took the criticism. We proved people wrong all year."
Truthfully, this team was probably another year away, making what the Tigers did this season even more notable. Midway through the season, after a tough loss at Syracuse, Swinney discussed how much growing up his young team still had to do. With only six seniors, this ended up being one of Swinney's least experienced teams. Yet Swinney also notes it ended up being one of his best -- 12-2, with a third straight ACC championship.
No matter what spring practice looks like, Clemson also proved it can win behind Kelly Bryant, an unknown player at this point last year.
"Not many people picked us to be here, but we developed a lot of depth with our young guys through the course of the season," Bryant said. "A lot of guys are coming back both sides of the ball, so having this experience we know what it looks like when the confetti is raining on us and when it's not raining on us. We'll learn from it."
Several Clemson underclassmen have decisions to make about their NFL futures. Wilkins, Austin Bryant, Ferrell and Mitch Hyatt all said after the game that they had not made up their minds. But the Tigers expect to lose multiple underclassmen, as has become the norm over the past several seasons.
Regardless, there are plenty of talented players returning, including Bryant, Cole Renfrow, Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster, Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Dexter Lawrence, Albert Huggins, Tre Lamar, Kendall Joseph. Not to mention an incoming recruiting class with even more standouts ready to contribute on the defensive line.
And let's remember, Clemson has been in this spot before: using a tough loss to stay motivated throughout the offseason and into a new year. It worked between 2015 and 2016. Will it work again?
"We feel we'll be right back in the same situation next year, with different results," Bryant said. "We have that windshield mentality; we'll put it behind us and look forward to what's ahead."