CLEMSON, S.C. – Early Saturday evening, a metaphorical page had turned inside Memorial Stadium.
The huge Jumbotron in the east end zone trumpeted the return visit of ESPN’s popular College GameDay show to Bowman Field on Saturday morning. And inside the WestZone football offices, televisions had already begun the countdown clock to Clemson's titanic ACC Atlantic Division showdown with Florida State.
The Seminoles’ visit is huge news. It is the 10th meeting of top-10 teams in ACC history, and Florida State’s move to No. 5 in both major polls means it is the fourth top-five meeting in league history.
GameDay will make its second trip to Clemson in six weeks, the first time it has done a repeat visit to a campus in the same season since 2007, when it went to LSU and Oregon twice.
The winner will be the prohibitive favorite to represent the Atlantic in the ACC title game: Clemson would have to lose two of its three remaining ACC games or Florida State would have to lose two of its four remaining league games to give next week’s loser a chance to win the division.
The winner will keep its hopes of a berth in the BCS National Championship game alive; the loser is unlikely to have a shot.
So, yes, this is a big deal. Florida State has been installed as an early three-point favorite according to Vegas Insider, but Clemson believes it will be more than prepared for the Seminoles’ visit.
After all, the Tigers gained valuable experience from the events of Aug. 31.
Then-No. 8 Clemson took down then-No. 5 Georgia 38-35 in a raucous Death Valley environment, the program’s second consecutive win over a top-10 SEC opponent following last season’s Chick-fil-A Bowl win over No. 9 LSU.
And as Dabo Swinney sees it, why mess with success? “For us, it’s the exact same as it’s always been,” Swinney said Saturday night. “The season starts tomorrow, the formula doesn’t change, the formula’s exactly the same. I know everyone’s fired up about Florida State. We’re fired up about Florida State. But we don’t do anything different because we play Florida State. We do what we do. It doesn’t matter.”
Like many coaches, Swinney is a big believer in a consistent routine. He won’t change his team’s preparation schedule this week.
“It’s the same thing we did last week against Boston College,” he said. “Practice on Monday, practice on Tuesday, get ready on Wednesday, pull it together on Thursday, focus on Friday, go play. From that standpoint it’s just business as usual. But what a great opportunity for our football team that we’re going to embrace.”
Doing anything but the norm, he says, invites disaster.
“If you really change what you normally do, you send the wrong message,” he said. “Every game to us is the biggest game of the year. That’s our mentality. It’s not coach-speak. It has to be that way. That’s how it has to be for us if we’re going to be consistent. If you start looking ahead, taking steps forward, you take teams for granted and you get beat. You lose games you shouldn't when you’re inconsistent in preparation and inconsistent in execution.”
Clemson’s preparation for the game could be a major advantage as well. Clemson will have only five practice days to prepare for Florida State, as opposed to having an entire spring practice and preseason to get ready for the Bulldogs, but the hype surrounding the game will be similar.
ESPN’s mobile studio visited campus in August for a day of interviews before the UGA game, and the network is expected to return for interviews on Wednesday in addition to GameDay obligations.
“I hope so,” Swinney said when asked if this summer’s experience would help. “I think you draw on the experiences you have available to you. Going into that game, we were drawing off experiences from the previous couple of years. It’s the ability to stay focused on what you control that matters. The game is decided on the field between the lines with the players. All that (hype) is great, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the game. Unless you let it.”
Five years ago Sunday, Swinney became Clemson’s interim head coach, replacing Tommy Bowden, who resigned under pressure. Since then, the Tigers are 46-21 with an ACC championship, two outright Atlantic Division titles and a piece of a third.
This will be the Tigers’ third top-10 matchup in just over a year; No. 4 Florida State’s 49-37 win over No. 10 Clemson last fall in Tallahassee was the first and the Georgia win the second.
“I think that’s where experience comes in,” said senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “We’ve had opportunities to play in some major games since I’ve been here. Coach Swinney has coached in some major games, the same thing. I think the experience of this team is coming out in the way we prepare.”
It is exactly what Swinney wants for his team this week.
“Listen, I hope that we’ve got games like this all the time at Clemson,” he said. “I hope this is the norm. That in the middle of the season we’ve got huge games like this. At the end of the season you’ve got huge games like this. You just embrace it. It is what it is. It’s a huge dang game. It’s one game. We win it, like I said earlier, it’s not over. We’ve got a long way to go. If you lose it, you’re not out of it, you’re still probably a top-10 type team. A BCS-type team, all those opportunities are out there.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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