ATLANTA -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, his voice hoarse from ringing in 2013 minutes earlier in the winners' locker room, opened with an apology. "Sorry about that guys," Swinney said. "It's been 31 years since we've had a celebration like that."
The last time a Clemson team celebrated its 11th win, the 1981 Tigers had just beaten South Carolina. All that remained was a win against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and a national title celebration. Swinney hopes his Tigers are headed that direction after a 25-24 win against LSU that turned on fourth-quarter, fourth-down magic from Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and a 37-yard field goal from Chandler Catanzaro as time expired. "You can't win 12 until you win 11," Swinney said. "You can't win a national championship until you win games like this."
Wait. We're getting ahead of ourselves. Before Clemson can start talking national championships, the Tigers have to overcome Florida State in the ACC Atlantic Division and South Carolina for the Palmetto State title. Those are the two teams that bested Clemson this season. But didn't Swinney earn the right to talk about big dreams? After all, what is LSU but a souped-up version of those two teams? Hadn't Swinney's Tigers just gone paw-to-paw with Les Miles' Tigers and come out victorious?
Bowl games are screwy. We tend to give far too much weight to their results heading into the following season. Had Boyd not evaded pressure yet again late Monday night and found Nuke Hopkins for a 26-yard gain on fourth-and-16 with less than 75 seconds remaining, we'd be talking about how 11-win LSU narrowly missed glory this season and predicting championships for Miles' team in 2013. We'd be talking about how the poor, pitiful ACC just can't beat the mighty SEC. Instead, as the ball dropped, LSU fans lit up message boards wondering how Miles and offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa could have possibly thought three consecutive passes were a good idea when the LSU needed to eat 2 minutes, 43 seconds to seal a win. "As far as I'm concerned," LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said, "we're three minutes from being 13-0." And he's correct.
If any program is allowed to read way too much into a bowl win, it's Clemson. After all, Clemson players spent their last offseason getting reminded that they got royally smoked by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. So it's interesting to compare the way Swinney opened his press conference after the Chick-fil-A Bowl with the way he opened his press conference after that 70-33 loss in the Orange Bowl. You've read the first two sentences from Swinney early Tuesday morning. Now compare that with the second and third sentences Swinney uttered in that Orange Bowl press conference. "The season is over," he said. "The biggest thing I said in there is that I love them, and we've got to live with this the whole offseason."
They did, too. Swinney fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and hired Brent Venables away from Oklahoma. All offseason, Clemson defenders heard the number 70 so many times it rang in their ears. And when they came to the Georgia Dome on Sept. 1 to open the season against Auburn, they had learned. No, that's a lie. They actually weren't much better at all. But they were Monday night when they made their second appearance in the Georgia Dome. Why did LSU run only 48 plays to Clemson's -- Dear editor, this is not a misprint -- 100? Because Clemson's defense abused Mettenberger. Clemson racked up six sacks, multiple batted passes and generally harassed LSU's quarterback all night. LSU would go three and out, and Boyd and the Clemson offense would jog back on the field and run plays at lightning speed. "Those of you who saw our defense play here against Auburn many moons ago to open this season, that was a different group out there tonight," Swinney said. "Those young bucks have grown up and played extremely well."
Not that it was all sunshine and lollipops for the Clemson offense. It never is against LSU's defense. On Clemson's second play from scrimmage, offensive coordinator Chad Morris called a handoff to receiver Sammy Watkins, who had lined up at tailback. Suspension and illness had turned Watkins from the nation's most exciting receiver in 2011 to Clemson's second-best receiver behind Hopkins. But that was going to change thanks to a Morris game plan heavy on Watkins getting the ball at various points on the field. That got scrapped after that handoff when 6-foot-5, 240-pound LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo covered five yards faster than any human that size should be able to cover five yards and smashed Watkins. Watkins lost the ball. LSU recovered, and when the purple-and-gold celebration cleared, Watkins lay on the turf clutching his right ankle. X-rays would come back negative, but Watkins wouldn't play again. "We had to do a lot of cutting and pasting of our game plan," Morris said, "since we had a lot of it planned around him."
Morris opted to rely on Boyd, who handled the ball 79 times (50 passes, 29 carries) without a turnover. Almost every play, Mingo or Sam Montgomery or Bennie Logan crashed through Clemson's patched-up line -- after right tackle Gifford Timothy was injured in the first quarter, Brandon Thomas slid to the right side and true freshman Isaiah Battle took over on the left side -- and clobbered Boyd. "I don't know where the MVP award goes, but to me, Boyd," Miles said. "I don't know how many yards he got rushing, but every yard he got, he got drilled. He just kept getting up."
For the next few months, Miles will be the one getting drilled. It would be easy to say armchair coaches have the benefit of hindsight, but even as LSU coaches signaled in plays during that fateful three-passes-and-out with a two-point lead and less than three minutes remaining, almost everyone in purple and gold seemed to be screaming "RUN!" The call of a pass on first down was actually excellent. Clemson coaches were thinking run, and they sent the house up the middle. Mettenberger fired to Kadron Boone along the sideline for an eight-yard gain. Now, facing second-and-two and needing to bleed 150 seconds with Swinney nursing three timeouts, LSU coaches faced a choice. They figured they'd see another run blitz. They didn't. Clemson coaches assumed they would throw. Mettenberger, under pressure, threw incomplete. No timeout necessary. On LSU's third-down play, Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman swatted down a Mettenberger pass. Once again, no timeout necessary. Clemson got the ball on its own 20-yard line with 1:39 remaining and three timeouts. That may as well be an hour for an offense that runs every series like a two-minute drill. Asked what he would do differently on that possession, Miles frowned. "Call runs that get first downs. I don't know what those are," Miles said. "Call passes that we can protect our quarterback on. I don't know what those are, either."
LSU defenders, gassed from playing so many downs, had their chance to stop Clemson, but Boyd converted that fourth down. During Clemson's drive, several LSU players pulled up lame with cramps. Clemson fans booed, assuming the LSU defenders were trying to buy time for their teammates to catch their breath. Miles chafed at that notion. In truth, LSU defenders lost their legs because their offense couldn't stay on the field and Clemson's could. "There was no advantage to LSU to lay down on the ground there," Miles said.
The delays didn't matter. Boyd made just enough plays to maneuver Clemson into position for a Torpedo -- a set of plays designed to get the ball in the middle of the field to give Catanzaro the easiest possible kick. Catanzaro put it through the pipes, and the Tigers retired to their locker room to celebrate the new year with a new trophy. What does the win portend for 2013? Who knows? But it sure felt a hell of a lot better than last year.
"Y'all may think this is crazy, but I don't give a rip about the scoreboard," Swinney said. "I know that's what I'm judged by, what my livelihood is based on, but I don't really care. What I care about is how they compete. ... Just to see our football team compete with the intensity and enthusiasm and perseverance that they competed with tonight, that's what it's all about. Hey, we don't make that play, I'm still loving them up in there."
Then Swinney paused.
"But make no mistake," he said. "The fun's in the winning."