|Hood: Statement game?|
|by David Hood - Senior Writer - Monday, December 3, 2012 7:53 PM||
Those two words are often overused in collegiate athletics, tossed around by coaches, writers and fans like so many dead leaves in a winter wind, the import simply lost in a swirl of thousands of others, lost in the sheer numbers.
The Clemson program has been involved in many such “statement games” during the course of head coach Dabo SwinneyDabo Swinney
View Full Profile’s tenure, including the loss to arch-rival South Carolina a little over a week ago. Last year’s statement games included wins over ranked Auburn, Florida St. and Virginia Tech teams early in the season and a win over the Hokies in the ACC Championship.
There were also losses - at Georgia Tech that snapped an eight-game winning streak, a loss at N.C. State with a possible top five BCS ranking on the line, another loss in desultory fashion to South Carolina and a beatdown loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl that still resonates not only within the Clemson fan base, but nationally.
This season has produced two such games, two at-bats for the Tigers to change national perception, to make a statement. They whiffed in both of those at-bats, losing at Florida St. in a game that saw myriad defensive and special teams breakdowns, reviving the “West Virginia just scored again” jokes, and the loss to the Gamecocks to end the regular season.
Now, there’s one more chance, and this one may be the biggest of all. It is the latest in a long line of statement games, and many more will follow, but this one doesn’t need to get lost amongst all the other leaves, the detritus of an autumn that harbors both hope and anguish and signifies both death and rebirth.
The coaches will tell you that bowl games are nice, that bowl games don’t make or break programs. Teams that lose bowl games in dramatic or blowout fashion can and do respond the next season. All you have to look at is how Clemson responded following last year’s Orange Bowl debacle – a 10-2 regular season, a share of the ACC Atlantic Division championship and records aplenty.
However, teams can also take a bowl win and use it as a steppingstone for the next season, a win giving fans and players alike the hope that good times and celebrations await with the next changing of seasons, hoping that the fall colors are a little more vivid, a little brighter the next time around.
The hopes surrounding the Clemson program for 2013 are high….a plethora of playmakers, new blood on the defense and a wealth of experience for younger players that have been thrown into the fire over the past two years have many expecting that another run at an ACC title and a possible BCS bowl game are more than distinct possibilities. And they are, especially considering what we saw out of the ACC this season.
However, Clemson fans, players and coaches need to look beyond the ACC – beyond the gaudy numbers put up on overmatched conference foes, beyond possible division titles and the number of wins in a season. The respect they want – that they crave – lies on the floor of the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve.
The last three times the Tigers have stared down the barrel of a so-called statement game, they’ve blinked. And with each blink comes a measure of lost respect and merely provides fodder for all of the talking heads on the four-letter network as they talk about how Clemson can’t hang with the big boys of the college football world, how they can beat Duke and Wake Forest and Maryland, and how the games against the perceived titans of the college football world are never in doubt.
The smack talk started Sunday night when the bowl pairings were announced, and it will continue up until kickoff.
Really, who can blame them? Clemson’s defense, which was bad a year ago, gave up fewer points this season, but gave up more yards. The pass defense is almost non-existent at times. The offense has had chances against an SEC defense like LSU’s twice in the last year, and lost to South Carolina both times without even so much as a whimper in the second half.
No one will give Clemson’s Tigers a shot to win this game. A loss goes down as a loss to a better team. However, Clemson’s recruits will continue to hear about SEC prowess, and you can bet that a loss to LSU means no one will give the Tigers a shot against Georgia in the opener next season. Three straight games against three of the top six teams in the SEC – there is simply no way Clemson can lose all three and hope to have any kind of national respect.
A win also gives the players some of that missing confidence, the confidence that big games can be won, and would act as the first step on the road to a BCS game next season.
However, the biggest statement of all might be for head coach Dabo Swinney, who has accomplished a lot of things at Clemson – division titles, an ACC title, a couple of ten win seasons, a BCS bowl and solid recruiting are all things to be proud of.
However, I go back to 2008 – Clemson played Alabama in that same Georgia Dome, entering the game as a Top 10 team and the favorites to knock off the Crimson Tide. Three hours later, the remains of Tommy Bowden’s career effectively lay in shambles on that turf, and there were hard truths that Clemson had to face….The Tigers weren’t physical enough; too much of a finesse team; not enough strength in the trenches to compete against the big boys. Swinney took over later that season, and promised the culture would change at Clemson.
Now, the Tigers enter another game in the Georgia Dome, and this time will be the prohibitive underdog. Another loss, another game lost in the trenches against some of the bad boys of college football, will leave more questions about how much has changed in those four years. Are the Tigers too much of a finesse team? Are they physical enough? Big enough? Strong enough? Bad enough? Mean enough?
The answers will once again be found on the turf of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, and the indoor venue won’t allow the winter wind to blow the leaves of confusion.
Can Clemson make a statement? Can Swinney make a statement? Check back in four weeks.
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