CLEMSON, S.C. – Over the past decade or so, the phrase “clemsoning” entered college football’s lexicon.
Clemsoning is best defined as the act of losing to an opponent you have no business losing to, an ugly feat the Tigers pulled off repeatedly under Tommy Bowden's and Dabo Swinney’s watch.
And there might be no better example of clemsoning than what unfolded in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 19, 2011.
The Tigers left dragging their proverbial tail between their legs following a 37-13 thrashing defined by four turnovers and a 27-0 N.C. State second-quarter run.
Two years later, Swinney’s bunch is rehashing memories of that ugly day.
Why? The Tigers—now ranked third nationally—are headed back to Raleigh for a Thursday night game, televised nationally by ESPN.
“It’s a tough place to play,” Swinney said last week. “They do a good job up there in that environment. We know very well, because we went up there and really played poor a couple of years ago.”
Clemson fans have every right to be concerned about their team’s first road game of 2013, but this is a different team. More mature. Better tested.
Here are four reasons why:
1. This is an older, more mature team
Clemson’s 2011 roster was exceedingly young. 42 of the 85 scholarship players were freshmen, and 29 played—the most of any FBS team in 2011.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd was a sophomore, going through his first season as a collegiate starter.
The Tigers started 8-0 and rose as high as No. 6 nationally before committing four turnovers in a 31-17 loss at Georgia Tech. They rebounded with the Atlantic-clinching win over Wake Forest, and rival South Carolina lay ahead following N.C. State.
Boyd admitted last week he and his teammates went through the motions a bit, entering Raleigh.
It was one of those cases where, after the Georgia Tech game, we kind of let a loss get to us. The Wake game didn’t go as well as we wanted to, even though we won and clinched the division. I think, after that, we were like, we can chill and relax, take a little break. (We) just didn’t play to our standard.
Now those freshmen and sophomores are juniors and seniors. They know how dangerous N.C. State can be. They understand Swinney’s mantra of “playing to a standard,” no matter the opponent.
They’ll be far more ready.
2. A healthy Sammy Watkins will be available
Watkins was a first-team All-American in 2011 and the consensus national freshman of the year—but he was never quite right after suffering a sprained shoulder against Wake Forest. His status was tightly guarded entering N.C. State, and Watkins warmed up with his teammates but didn’t play.
His absence was noted: Although DeAndre Hopkins had five catches for 124 yards, no other wide receiver had more than four catches or 48 yards. Boyd threw for 238 yards and was intercepted twice with no touchdowns. Following an injury- and suspension-riddled 2012, Watkins appears to be back on track.
He had six receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown against Georgia, including a 77-yard score. With No. 2 receiver Charone Peake done for the season with a torn ACL, suffered in practice last week, Boyd will lean heavily on Watkins Thursday.
As he should.
3. The Tigers have become smarter with the football
In 2011’s ugly 2-4 season-ending stretch, ball security was a major issue. In that six-game span, Clemson committed four turnovers three different times: at Georgia Tech, at N.C. State and in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia.
They lost all three games.
State’s defining second-quarter run was fueled by turnovers. With the Wolfpack up 7-3, Boyd fumbled at his own 6, which N.C. State turned into a touchdown two plays later. On the next series, freshman back Mike Bellamy fumbled at his own 18, which the ‘Pack converted into a field goal and a 17-3 lead.
Clemson followed with a three-and-out, and T.J. Graham returned a punt 34 yards to the Tigers’ 11. Two plays later, Tony Creecy’s four-yard touchdown run gave N.C. State a 24-3 lead.
“It was an embarrassment,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said last week. “We turned the ball over. It just started a boat race. That’s what it was. I was very disappointed in that.”
Clemson has greatly improved its ball security over the last year. For the last 15 games, the Tigers have had just one four-turnover game and one three-turnover game. The four-turnover game? A 56-20 rout of Duke. The three-turnover game? A 45-10 whipping of Maryland.
It’s cliché to say a team that wins the turnover battle wins games, but this doesn't seem to apply to Clemson.
4. “Clemsoning” is an endangered concept
From 2000 to 2011, Clemson lost a dozen games as a top-25 team to an unranked opponent, an average of one per season. Nine happened under Tommy Bowden’s watch, while three happened in Swinney’s tenure.
The last such defeat?
That 37-13 loss at N.C. State in 2011. Since then, the Tigers’ losses have come at the hands of a No. 14 South Carolina team, a No. 23 West Virginia team, a No. 4 Florida State team and a No. 13 South Carolina team.
“If 'pulling a Clemson' is losing a game, then I guess a lot of people are pulling a Clemson,” Swinney said after the season-opening win over then-No. 5 Georgia.
This is a far more experienced, more prepared team. There are reasons to be wary, but expect Clemson to put its best foot forward Thursday night.
Unless noted, all quotes in this article were obtained directly by the author.
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