CLEMSON, S.C. — Late Saturday night, the mood surrounding Clemson’s football team was, as one could imagine, rather dark.
The Tigers had just turned the ball over six times, turning a 17-17 fourth-quarter tie into a 31-17 loss at South Carolina. It was Clemson’s fifth consecutive loss to its hated archrival, the longest such streak in its 105-game series with the Gamecocks.
Players were not pleased.
“It’s obviously disappointing,” senior quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “It sucks. We’ve got to make sure everyone’s spirits are lifted. We can’t dwell on it. Again, we’ve just got to go into the bowl game and do the best we can.”
No. 13 Clemson (10-2) does not have momentum, but the Tigers still have an opportunity for a high-profile end to their season.
Despite Saturday’s disappointing defeat, Clemson remains in prime position for a BCS bowl berth when bowl invitations are handed out Sunday night.
A BCS bid wouldn’t heal all of the Tigers’ wounds, but it would provide Boyd and junior Sammy Watkins one more significant stage on which to display their talents in a Clemson uniform.
On Sunday, two major national outlets projected Clemson to Jan. 3's Orange Bowl. Both Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and Andrea Adelson of ESPN slotted the Tigers against No. 4 Alabama, which tumbled from No.1 following Auburn’s last-second, 109-yard kickoff return that sealed a 34-28 defeat for Alabama.
Alabama is coach Dabo Swinney’s alma mater. He began as a walk-on wide receiver before earning a scholarship and winning a national title in 1992. He spent 1993-2000 as a graduate assistant tight ends and wide receivers coach before being hired by Tommy Bowden as Clemson’s wide receivers coach in 2003.
Alabama and Clemson last played in the 2008 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, which was the beginning of the end of Bowden’s tenure as head coach of Clemson.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide rolled the favored Tigers 34-10, embarrassing them on national television. Six weeks later, Bowden resigned under pressure, and Swinney became the interim coach. You know the rest.
Swinney believes his team is worthy of the program’s second BCS berth in three seasons.
“We want to be in the BCS,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer. Not even a question. We’re still one of the best teams in the country. That’s a fact. We’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the country. This is the first time we’ve been out of the Top 10 all season.
“I wish we could win them all, but there are only a couple of undefeated teams. We’ve had tough losses (to Florida State and South Carolina) and had 10 turnovers. That’s why you hear the talk about turnover margin all the time. When we win it, we usually do well. We want the very best possible postseason game.”
A year ago, the Tigers finished 10-2 with losses to Florida State and South Carolina but wound up in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where they took a thrilling 25-24 win over a Top 10 LSU team.
So, what makes their scenario different this time around? Florida State.
If the No. 1 Seminoles beat Duke in the ACC title game, they’re a lock for the BCS national title game. The ACC champion is contractually obligated as the Orange Bowl’s “host” team. BCS rules state that if a bowl loses a team to the national title game, the BCS will then select a replacement from among automatic qualifiers that are not bound to other “host” bowls and at-large teams before any other selections are made.
While the Orange Bowl isn’t obligated to take an ACC team as a replacement, Clemson would be the most likely candidate, assuming it is in the Top 14 and eligible to be selected due to the league’s relationship with the bowl.
Last year, the Orange Bowl and the ACC signed a 12-year agreement binding the ACC champ to the Orange Bowl in the new four-team bowl/playoff system that begins next season.
“The ACC and Discover Orange Bowl have a terrific relationship and, as we look ahead to the future of postseason college football, this will further an already beneficial partnership for both organizations," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said in an Orange Bowl official release in 2012. “The Discover Orange Bowl has a rich history of prestige, is located within the league’s footprint and is a great destination for our student-athletes, alumni and fans.”
If the Tigers are passed over for the Orange Bowl, a return trip to the Chick-fil-A would be the most likely destination. At 7-1 in the ACC, they have the best league record of any potential CFA Bowl target. Duke is next at 6-2. Under the ACC’s rules, the Blue Devils are the only team that can jump the Tigers in the ACC’s bowl selection process. However, Duke’s fan base is smaller and less attractive than Clemson’s, making the Tigers the obvious choice.
“The Chick-fil-A Bowl is great,” Swinney said. “I’d have no problem with going there.”
However, the BCS is the goal.
“I think we’re one of the best teams in the country,” he said. “I think we should be in the BCS. We’ve been in the Top 10 and our losses have been to really good team. We’re a team that’s exciting to watch and can play with anyone in the country. I’d love to be in the BCS and I think we deserve to be.”
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace.