Can Dabo Swinney Get Redemption for 2011 Orange Bowl Embarrassment?

Jeff BellCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2014

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
Clemson coach Dabo SwinneyStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

Clemson's 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia will always be remembered as one of the more pathetic displays of defense in the history of college football.

On such a big stage, with fans watching all around the country, allowing 70 points was a massive embarrassment for a program hoping to impress in its first BCS game. But the point of this piece isn't to stew over the past. It happened and it made Clemson look bad. But we're now two full years removed from the contest, and the Tigers are staring down a chance to make people forget all about it.

On Friday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), head coach Dabo Swinney's squad will get its shot to take down Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Would it be redemption for the previous Orange Bowl failure? Absolutely. Especially when you consider that Ohio State was one win away from potentially playing in the BCS title game. This year's Buckeye team has a strong running game, led by Carlos Hyde and an athletic, dual-threat freak at quarterback in Braxton Miller.

And for everybody who questioned Ohio State following its loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship, you may want to check out what the Spartans did to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Make no mistake—this is an elite Buckeyes team with one loss of the season to a Michigan State club that will almost certainly finish the season ranked in the top three.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
Ohio State coach Urban MeyerAndy Lyons/Getty Images

If you're still not convinced that a win over Ohio State means something, consider Urban Meyer's track record in BCS games.

It began when he was the head coach at Utah, as his Utes dominated Pittsburgh 35-7 back in 2005 to score the first BCS win by a team from a non-AQ conference. Meyer's Florida teams won three BCS games, including a pair of national titles.

The Buckeyes may have fallen in the public eye after losing back-to-back national championships during the '00s, but many forget the team responded with a Rose Bowl win over Oregon and a Sugar Bowl victory against Arkansas.

But the real question isn't about whether or not a win would help erase nightmarish Orange Bowl memories for Swinney. It would clearly be a landmark win for a program that hopes to maintain ground in the ACC arms race with Florida State.

The bigger question is a much simpler one: can the Tigers actually pull this thing off?

Clemson began the season with a victory over fifth-ranked Georgia that resonated on a national level. The Bulldogs lost several games toward the end of the year, but that was due, in large part, to a rash of freak injuries on both sides of the ball.

The Tigers knocked off Mark Richt's team when it was fully loaded and coming off a narrow loss in the 2012 SEC Championship game to Alabama.

The problem is that that may have been the high point of the Tigers' entire season. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and company only faced two ranked teams the rest of the way. They were outscored by a combined total of 82-31 in those contests, which came against Florida State and South Carolina.

West Virginia QB Geno Smith
West Virginia QB Geno SmithJ. Meric/Getty Images

However, the common denominator in both of those losses is that they came against teams boasting elite defenses. While the Buckeyes allow just over 20 points per game, they gave up 34 at Cal, 35 at Illinois, 30 at Northwestern and 41 at Michigan.

That doesn't bode well when preparing to face a Tigers team that is averaging more than 40 a game.

But the pendulum can easily swing back the other way when you consider a second factor in both losses during the regular season: the presence of a dual-threat quarterback on the opposing sideline.

Jameis Winston threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns in the Seminoles' victory in Death Valley. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw threw for 152 yards and rushed for another 94 in the Gamecocks' win against Swinney's club.

Of course, neither performance even sniffs at what West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith churned out in the aforementioned Orange Bowl. Smith threw for over 400 yards and six touchdowns while tacking on an additional 26 yards rushing.

A defense shouldn't be judged on something that occurred two years ago, but there's a definitive pattern in the losses Clemson has suffered in recent years. And wouldn't you know it, Braxton Miller fits the exact definition of a dual-threat quarterback. In this season, Miller has over 1,000 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, and he missed the better part of three games.

A counterargument here might point to the fact that dual-threat quarterbacks with wins over Clemson on their resume also have proven arms. And Miller, without a single 300-yard passing game this season, does not. Which means that even a hit-and-miss Tigers' secondary should have the upper hand against a passing attack that isn't all that lethal.

The key will be stopping Miller and the rest of the backfield from building momentum in the ground game—something that few teams have been able to do. It requires disciplined play and sure tackling, and should the Buckeyes churn out some punishing drives early on, it could spell doom.

After you analyze every aspect of this game, however, the final piece of the puzzle comes down to motivation. In that area, Clemson should hold a distinct advantage. Sure, there was the disappointment of losing to South Carolina, and state bragging rights won't be up for grabs for another 11 months.

But the Tigers weren't going to play for a national title, anyway, due to the loss against Florida State. And Clemson, despite all the talent that has touched Howard's Rock over the past decade, has yet to win a BCS game. Which puts it behind such teams as Oregon State, Iowa and even Kansas. It's quarterback Tajh Boyd's final game, and a win would be remembered by fans for years to come.

Over at Ohio State, there might be a hangover effect from losing the Big Ten championship, which removed the Buckeyes from title contention. This clearly wasn't the preferred destination for Meyer and company when the season began. And though they'll be looking for a win to perhaps jump-start the 2014 season, the motivation level won't be anywhere near what it is for Clemson.

Does a win provide redemption for the Orange Bowl disaster against West Virginia? Yes. Can Clemson beat Ohio State to send Boyd and the rest of the senior class off on a high note? Yes, because the talent is there and the team has proven the ability to win big games (see LSU in 2012).

Will it play out that way? That's the beauty of college football, because in this one, anyone showing complete certainty in their prediction could be in for a rude awakening. Just ask Baylor, or perhaps the Florida team that fell to Louisville in last year's Sugar Bowl.

This wouldn't be an upset of that magnitude, but it would be the most significant step forward in years for a program that has remained on the cusp of greatness for so long. Redemption is there to be had, and Clemson fans can only hope the team shows up locked and loaded, ready to further build up a program that appears to be very much on the rise.


All stats via ESPN