CLEMSON, S.C. — Dabo Swinney isn’t the sort to think too far ahead.
At least publicly, early-season rankings mean very little to Clemson’s fifth-year head coach. When told Clemson had risen to No. 4 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, its highest ranking since September 1988, Swinney was predictably dismissive.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If we’re No. 4 going into the ACC championship game, that’s great. Maybe that game gives us a chance to get into the final game, and then it matters. Right now, we’ve just played one game. We’re 1-0. I appreciate that (votes) are recognizing potential, and we do have good potential.”
Swinney won’t speculate, but that won’t stop Clemson fans from California dreamin’.
This season’s BCS National Championship Game will be held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., and last week’s season-opening 38-35 win over then-No.5 Georgia has Clemson supporters entertaining serious thoughts of the program’s first national title since Danny Ford brought home CU’s only crystal football in 1981.
How do the Tigers get there? It won’t be easy, but it is entirely possible, if you approach it on a step-by-step basis.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume that Clemson must finish 13-0 to make the BCS title game. Over the past decade, nine teams have made the title game with one or more losses. Only three—12-1 Oklahoma in 2003, 12-1 Ohio State in 2007 and 12-1 Oklahoma in 2008—were not from the Southeastern Conference.
Clemson has a strong schedule, bookended by SEC East powers, Georgia and South Carolina, with a visit from Florida State in between, but voters’ perception of the ACC (rated as the No. 7 league in college football last season by WarrenNolan.com) could prevent a one-loss ACC team from making Pasadena.
So how does Clemson get back to college football’s promised land? Let’s break it down, step by step.
Win the ACC Atlantic Division
Clemson officially claims three ACC Atlantic Division titles: 2009, 2011 and 2012. A year ago, the Tigers’ only ACC blemish came in a 49-37 defeat at Florida State; both teams finished ACC play 7-1, but the Seminoles’ head-to-head victory gave them the ACC title game berth, relegating Clemson to “co-champion” status.
This year, Florida State visits Memorial Stadium for what should be a second consecutive top-10 meeting between the rivals; last season’s meeting in Tallahassee was the ACC’s first top-10 showdown since 2007.
Beat the Seminoles and Clemson will be in the Atlantic driver’s seat. That’s the first step toward Pasadena.
Take Care of Business
Over the last two years, Clemson has built a reputation for consistency. Only six teams have spent the last 30 weeks in the Associated Press Top 25: Clemson, Alabama, LSU, Stanford, Oregon and South Carolina. Clemson’s losses in that span? South Carolina twice, Florida State, West Virginia, N.C. State and Georgia Tech. Of that group, only Georgia Tech and N.C. State were unranked at the time.
The Tigers have a favorable schedule: N.C. State, Syracuse, Maryland and Virginia are the only road games, while North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech are not on the schedule due to the ACC’s schedule rotation. Oct. 26’s trip to Maryland could be the biggest pitfall. Two years ago, the Terrapins led Clemson, 35-17, in the third quarter before the Tigers rallied for a 56-45 win.
Beat the teams they’re supposed to, and the Tigers will take another step toward Pasadena.
Beat South Carolina
This might be the toughest obstacle of all. Clemson has historically dominated its in-state rival, holding a 65-41-4 series lead. But the Tigers haven’t beaten the Gamecocks since a 31-14 win in November 2008 sealed Swinney’s ascension from interim to full-time head coach.
South Carolina’s four-game winning streak in the series ties its run from 1950-53 as its longest streak of Clemson domination. A year ago, Clemson held a 14-10 halftime lead, but was thoroughly outplayed in the second half, dropping a 27-17 defeat. South Carolina held the ball for nearly 40 minutes, and standout defensive end Jadeveon Clowney rolled up 4.5 sacks, dominating the Tigers’ offensive line.
Clemson last won in Columbia in 2007 on Mark Buchholz’s game-ending field goal, and emerging victorious will be no easy task. To do so, the Tigers must control the ball, control the tempo and find some way to at least partially control Clowney.
Beat South Carolina, in conjunction with successful completion of the other steps, and the Tigers will have taken a major step towards Pasadena
Win the ACC
If Clemson can beat Florida State and take care of business in the rest of its league slate, it will wind up in Charlotte for the ACC title game against the Coastal Division representative.
Two years ago, the core of this team dominated Virginia Tech, 38-17, on the way to Clemson’s first ACC championship since 1991. Here, the Tigers will likely face either Miami or North Carolina, both are capable teams, but neither is on the level of the Gamecocks or Seminoles.
Two years ago, the crowd was split evenly between Hokie and Tiger fans, a scenario which would likely repeat itself should North Carolina qualify on the other side. Miami’s fanbase does not travel as well; a Clemson-Miami ACC title game would do solid TV ratings, but Bank of America Stadium would likely acquire an orange-and-white tinge.
Over the past 10 years, only two teams from BCS automatic qualifier conferences have finished unbeaten and out of the BCS title game—Auburn in 2003 and Cincinnati in 2009.
If the Tigers run the table and finish 13-0, it is difficult to imagine a scenario that would find them shut out of Pasadena.
Not that Swinney is thinking about this, of course. Not even close.
“We have a chance to be a really good football team,” he said. “I told our team this, we were night and day, light-years ahead after one game this year than one game last year. It’s not even close. “We’re much, much better this year than we were this time last year.
But that team last year was pretty good. Here’s the deal. That team got better all throughout the year. My challenge to this year’s team? Will you improve? Will you stay focused? If you do that, you have a chance to be special.”
*Note: Unless noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the author.
Connect with Greg on Twitter: @gc_wallace
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