The phrase “turning the corner” has been thrown around a lot at Clemson during the past 12 or 13 years. Once the dominant football program in the ACC, Clemson has seemingly found itself in a frustrating labyrinth during that time, where it’s either found itself constantly going in circles or simply smacking right into a new wall once it turned one of those corners.
Consider last year: only Clemson could finally turn one of its biggest corners by winning its first ACC Championship in 20 years, only to trip headfirst into an ignominious beat down in the Orange Bowl, where its defense surrendered a record-setting 70 points. It was “Clemson pulling a Clemson,” as some pundits have termed it.
They’ve already turned another one of those corners by winning its much-anticipated showdown against Auburn in the Georgia Dome in the Kickoff Classic opener, a place and venue that’s been a house of horrors for the program for nearly a decade.
Since defeating Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl in 2004, Clemson had gone O-for-Atlanta until the beginning of this season, as they had lost another bowl game and another kickoff classic (and this is not to mention their inability to defeat Georgia Tech on its home field during that time) in that stretch.
That first Kickoff Classic in 2008 was one of the program’s more embarrassing moments; armed with a top-ten national ranking and even some National Title expectations, Clemson was thumped by Alabama and run out of the Dome with their tiger tails tucked between their legs. By mid-season, its head coach, Tommy Bowden, had been fired, its championship aspirations faded into a desperate attempt to simply reach a bowl game.
One might say it was a signature season for Bowden since it so adequately captured his tenure, which was full of false starts and disappointments. Just when it seemed Clemson had ascended to the cusp of greatness, they’d either fall just short or spectacularly flame out.
Inconsistency plagued the Bowden era; none of his teams could ever put together a complete season, nor was there much continuity between them. His teams would either start slow and finish strong (as was was the case in 2003 and 2007) or vice versa (consider 2000 and 2006), with neither approach netting a championship.
Those seasons with strong finishes always dangled the possibility of greatness for the next season–next year would be the year, at least until the program set itself back with disappointing campaigns.
The Dabo Swinney era hasn’t been completely different; sure, he guided the Tigers to that elusive championship last year, but even that team often left one frustrated. It was a team that had no business losing to an unranked North Carolina State team at the end of season, much less getting completely blown out by the Wolfpack.
Like his predecessor, Dabo seemingly raised that team from the ashes of a disappointing previous season; 2010 saw Clemson go 6-7, which was its first losing record since 1998. As such, no one expected Clemson to come roaring out of the gate to an 8-0 start and a top ten ranking, yet, there they were in October before their season came to a bittersweet end.
They captured the conference title, but there was still a sense of slight disappointment thanks to another loss to archrival South Carolina and the Orange Bowl debacle (Clemson fans likely winced anytime they passed a 70mph speed limit sign this off season). That “one step forward, two steps back” pattern has been Clemson’s calling card for over a decade.
Because of that, it’s easy for pundits to assume that Clemson will “pull a Clemson” once again this year. You can already hear those headlines forming if it loses its next big showdown with Florida State down in Tallahassee in two weeks, which would take them out of the driver’s seat in their title defense.
However, that won’t be “pulling a Clemson”–not really, not if Florida State is truly one of the best teams in the nation. Beating them on their home field will be a difficult task even for this Clemson team that’s armed with one of the best offenses in college football.
No, “pulling a Clemson” would be allowing such a defeat to define its season and not rebounding to take care of business in other games it should win this season. There’s little shame in losing to a great team like Florida State (if they are indeed a great team this year); Clemson’s problem during all these years has been dropping games to underperforming teams they should have beaten.
One can also envision another scenario that sees Clemson escape Tallahassee with its life and high-ranking in the polls, only to turn around and lose to one of those underperformers. It’d be a very Clemson thing to do.
So when will Clemson have finally turned the corner? It only comes after it’s turned in a season where they finally live up to reasonable expectations. While nothing short of a National Championship will quell the most ravenous of Tiger faithful, most of Clemson Nation would just be satisfied to see Clemson maintain some level of consistency during and between seasons.
Clemson doesn’t even need to repeat as ACC Champions to shed itself of its label–it needs only to avoid dropping games to lesser opponents, coming up just short of the next goal, or inexplicably wilting in the national spotlight.
Oh, and beating South Carolina would go a long way in considering a season a success. It’s been a long three years for Tiger fans, most of whom have never seen the rivalry from the perspective of being their rival’s yearly punching bag.
Simply beating the Gamecocks–considered by many to simply be a birthright–is one corner Clemson rarely had any trouble turning in the past, and it’s one Swinney needs to navigate this season if the program is to ever emerge from this maze of frustration.