The Clemson Tigers have been dragging an anchor tethered to their cleats for decades.
Heartbreaking losses, an embarrassing blowout and unmet expectations have dogged Clemson since its 12-0 team won the national championship in 1981. It's been 31 years of pent-up frustrations and two years of punches in the gut ever since.
This year, Clemson may ditch that anchor and finally rid itself of its "choker" label.
To understand Clemson, one must understand the agonizing twists and turns its program has experienced.
After Clemson was named the 1981 national champion, the program was hit with a two-year probation from the NCAA after an investigation revealed major violations had occurred. Clemson also received a two-year postseason ban following the 1982 and 1983 seasons and a television ban and loss of 10 scholarships in 1983 and 1984.
After its probation, Clemson won three consecutive ACC Championships. The football gods decided Clemson hadn't suffered enough. The NCAA found that Clemson had committed recruiting violations from 1984 through 1988. The Tigers did not receive heavy sanctions from the NCAA, but head coach Danny Ford resigned as a result.
Two coaches and eight mediocre seasons later, Tommy Bowden was hired in 1998. The Tigers would fail to win an ACC Championship during Bowden's tenure. In 2008, Clemson football fans would see a new era of Tiger football begin.
William "Dabo" Swinney is an Alabama alum. He was the wide receivers and tight end coach at Alabama from 1996 to 2001. When head coach Mike Dubose was fired after the 2000 season, his staff was not retained. Swinney would end up working as a real-estate developer for nearly two years.
Head coach Tommy Bowden offered Swinney a job as Clemson's wide receivers coach in 2003. When Bowden resigned midway through the 2008 season, Swinney was named the interim head coach.
A former real-estate developer was the Tigers' new head coach. Cue puzzled looks and muffled laughter.
In 2011, Clemson started the season unranked. After an 8-0 start, the Tigers looked unbeatable. They beat ACC big boys Florida State and Virginia Tech. This was going to be the year they finally got it together.
With a No. 6 ranking and high expectations, Clemson marched into Atlanta, Georgia and lost 31-17 to Georgia Tech. The team recovered the following week against Wake Forest but suffered two consecutive losses against North Carolina State and rival South Carolina.
"Just when you think the Tigers put it all together, they fall apart," wrote ESPN's Heather Dinnich. "Fine. We’re used to that."
Clemson won the Atlantic Division and faced No. 5 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game. The Tigers beat the Hokies 38-10 and won Clemson's first conference championship since 1991. Quarterback Tajh Boyd (240 yards, three touchdowns) was selected as the game's Most Valuable Player. A disaster of a season was averted, and Swinney was named Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year.
This was too good to be true. "So this is what it feels like to go to a BCS bowl," Clemson fans probably thought. The Tigers arrived at the Orange Bowl as a three-point favorite over the Big East's West Virginia Mountaineers.
Prior to the opening kickoff, Swinney talked to ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters. "Hopefully, when this thing is over, people are going to be talking about the Clemson defense," he told her. And they did.
Because Clemson pulled off...well, the most Clemson thing ever.
Playing in its first major bowl in 30 years, Clemson lost 70-33. The Tigers gave up 49 points in the first half. West Virginia's 70 points smashed bowl records. It was an embarrassing loss.
"But this one – this one was a monumental fail, even by Clemson’s standards," Dinnich wrote. Clemson, it would appear, is just not allowed to have nice things. Time to reflect, review and then forget the 2011 season's nightmarish finish.
In 2012, Clemson started off 3-0 before losing to No. 4 Florida State 49-37. The defense's reputation took another hit, but it would recover. Clemson went on a seven-game winning streak. With a 10-1 record, the No. 12 Tigers hosted its rival game against the No. 13 South Carolina Gamecocks. Clemson hadn't beaten South Carolina since 2008. That streak would continue. Clemson lost 27-17.
The Tigers received a Chick-fil-A Bowl berth to play the SEC's LSU Tigers. LSU was favored by six points. The unthinkable happened. Clemson's defense showed up—LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was sacked six times and intercepted once. Clemson didn't choke in the waning seconds of the game.
Placekicker Chandler Catanzaro had missed a PAT earlier in the game, but he was asked to make the game-winning 37-yard field goal with a few ticks left on the clock. it looked like another Clemson fail in the making. As the ball sailed between the uprights, the clock read 00:00. Clemson beat No. 9 LSU 25-24.
The anchor had been jettisoned. And Dabo Swinney won us over.
This year, Clemson returns six starters on offense and six on defense. Boyd is a Heisman contender. He doesn't have ACC first-team tight end Brandon Ford for a target, but he does get back speedster Sammy Watkins. Five of the defense's front seven return. The season looks promising. As it usually does.
The Tigers have a doable schedule. The sailing looks smooth as long as Clemson's anchor doesn't drag it down.
Conference games on the road are at North Carolina State, Syracuse, Maryland and Virginia. Clemson avoided drawing Miami and Virginia Tech from the Coastal Division, and it gets Florida State at home on October 19. It also has two FCS teams—South Carolina State and The Citadel—on its schedule.
Kent State had originally been scheduled, but when the league agreed to go to a nine-game conference slate, Kent State was dropped. The league eventually went back to an eight-game schedule when its agreement with Notre Dame was finalized. Kent State moved on, so Clemson added a second FCS team, according to TigerNet.com
Its two toughest opponents may be the bookended SEC teams. Clemson opens this season with Georgia and closes out the regular season at South Carolina. A victory over Georgia would stun SEC fans. It would probably stun Clemson fans.
Beating the surging South Carolina Gamecocks would bring Clemson more respect in the state of South Carolina. Ending its four-year rivalry-game drought and finishing the regular season with a win—the last time that happened was in 2008—would give Clemson confidence going into the postseason.
Going 10-2 will not be enough, especially if its two losses are to Georgia and South Carolina. Split the two games, and it might be good enough to be in the BCS title game conversation, especially if that victory comes at the end of the season.
Trading in its anchor for a crystal football would make everything right.
2013 may be the year Clemson finally gets some nice things.