There is usually one game that defines a season—one game in which the ball bounced your way, the official blew a call, or a gutty effort propelled your team to a great season. It happens every year in that one game, where the fans look back and say "what if" or "what a great game."
Last year, for Clemson, the season was defined at home in the fifth game. Clemson led Maryland 17-6 at the half. The only points the Terps could muster were provided by two fumble recoveries deep in Clemson territory. The Terps converted these Clemson miscues to field goals. In fact, Maryland had just 74 yards in total offense during the first half.
The Tigers were sporting a 3-1 record, 1-0 in conference, entering the game against Maryland. The embarrassment to Alabama was beginning to fade and theories developing about the meltdown in Atlanta. Then came the meltdown of the season!
Early in the second half, a Clemson 45 plus yard screen pass for a touchdown was called back. Had the play stood, the Tigers would have gone up 24-6 and the game would have probably been over. But it did not work out that way; the Tigers imploded.
The Terps went on to score 14 points and blanked the Tigers for the rest of the game en-route to a close win. The Tigers found themselves 1-1 in the conference and the fan base angry and bewildered. The season had turned, turmoil had set in, and Clemson followed the shocking loss with an uninspired five-point loss to Wake Forest. Not long after the loss to the Deacs, Tommy Bowden was dismissed and a divisional crown became an afterthought.
The defining play for Clemson in the 2008 season was a holding call that nullified a touchdown and ultimately contributed to the Maryland victory. Clemson did go on to post a winning record and earn a bid to the Gator Bowl, but the dye had been cast.
Looking back now, had Clemson beaten Maryland, the Tigers would have been 4-1 and 2-0 in conference play. Spirits would have been high going into the Wake game and it is my opinion that Clemson would have won that game. A different season would have followed.
The 2009 season has a game very much like the Maryland game of 2008. Clemson will open the season with a win over Middle Tennesse State. Next, the Tigers will travel to Atlanta on Thursday night to play a good Georgia Tech team.
If this game was to be played on a Saturday, I think the Tigers would have a slim chance to pull off the upset. But this game is on a Thursday night; we all know what happens to road teams on Thursday. Georgia Tech had a good football team and I am not sure I see any way Clemson can win on the road on a Thursday night with an inexperienced quarterback.
This means the next game against Boston College is huge. Clemson plays Boston College at home after the Georgia Tech game. The fan base will be searching and concerned as a new coach and new quarterback will have suffered their first loss of the season. The Tigers will be 0-1 in conference and can not start the season 0-2 in conference play.
If the Tigers can get past Boston College, the next conference game will be against Maryland, a team that returns just nine starters and 38 lettermen. So circle your calendar, Tiger fans, the big game is Sep. 19 at 12:00 in Death Valley. It should be one of those games that could define a season.