|by David Hood|
That statement was made very real to me and other members of the Clemson media last Friday night, standing on the torn-up grass of Sun Life Stadium watching a jubilant group of Clemson coaches, players and fans celebrate the Tigers’ thrilling 40-35 victory over No. 7 Ohio St.
Two years prior, following Clemson’s heartbreaking loss to West Virginia, the Clemson football team filed off the field with nary a whimper. The scene in the locker room wasn’t much better – players walked around quietly, coaches stared at walls in shock and certain players tried their best to do interviews while also trying to process what had just occurred.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele stood in the middle of the locker room and endeavored to make sense of what he had just witnessed, and something he said resonated with me. Steele was asked how the Tigers would get over the shock and embarrassment of losing a BCS game in such spectacular fashion, and his answer was simple.
“You start over. It’s a new year and a new team,” Steele said. “Six weeks ago didn’t have anything to do with next year and this won’t either. I’ve been around long enough to know.”
Ask anyone present at that game, and they would have told you that they thought Clemson might never recover from that loss. They would have also told you that West Virginia had become one of college football’s “it” teams. For the 2012 season, the Mountaineers would have a potential Heisman Trophy quarterback, outstanding running backs and receivers and a new conference. They also had a coach who was gaining momentum as one of the bright young coaches in the game.
Clemson was left to pick up the pieces.
Consider the pieces picked up – since that game, West Virginia has gone 11-14, and their lone bowl appearance ended in a 38-14 loss to Syracuse at the end of 2012. If you want to take it a step further, the Mountaineers won their first five games of 2012 – and have gone 6-14 since that time.
Over the last two seasons, Clemson is 22-4, with bowl wins over LSU and Ohio St., another BCS appearance and a BCS bowl win, something that head coach Dabo Swinney mentioned after the game Friday night.
“Two years ago, it was probably unthinkable for a lot of people when I sat at this same podium after that butt whipping that we took that we would be 22-4 since that night,” Swinney said. “Again, we talked after that last trip that it wouldn't be 30 years before we got back. We’re back, and we found a way to win. That was our motto all week – just find a way to win the game.”
The scene following this year’s game was completely different, and the tears shed by Clemson’s players were tears of joy. Coaches embraced in jubilation and not sadness. Oranges were thrown TO the Clemson players by their own fans and not AT them by Mountaineer fans.
Two years has made a huge difference for the Clemson program, but this team still has more it can do – getting back to the ACC Championship Game, beating South Carolina and earning a spot in next season’s college football playoff.
Or, as Swinney puts it, the Tigers still have the rest of the mountain to climb.
“We didn't quite get to the top of the mountain like we wanted, but we can see it,” Swinney said last week.
Now we sit back and see what difference a year will make. Will it continue to be positive strides? Will the losses of so many key personnel on offense mean a step back? Only time will tell.
David Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org