Clemson proves it's a contender
From Death Valley, Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples explains why Clemson
's win over Georgia
proves why they should be taken seriously as a National Championship contender.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- When that punted ball hit Ben Boulware in the fourth quarter of Saturday's matchup with Georgia, the inhabitants of a packed Death Valley sucked in a breath and waited to sigh on the exhale. Things were going too well. The Bulldogs stood swaying, down 10 points and ready to fall. But at some time, Clemson had to Clemson, and a punt caroming off a true freshman on the return team and bounding into the end zone seemed like the perfect opportunity. As Clemsoning goes, this could have been one of the biggest Clemsons the Tigers ever pulled.
Not familiar with Clemsoning or pulling a Clemson? The term, coined by Dan Rubenstein and Ty Hildenbrant of The Solid Verbal podcast, means crashing and burning in spectacular fashion, particularly as a high-ranked team in the early part of the season. As the ball danced in the end zone, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney prepared for the inevitable. If a Bulldog fell on the ball, Georgia would score a touchdown. If the Tigers could somehow get the ball out of the back of the end zone, the result would be unpleasant but more palatable. "Oh, God," Swinney remembered thinking. "At least we might get a safety." When giving the opponent two points and the ball in a 10-point game is the best-case scenario, a team is in the midst of full-blown Clemsoning. "It couldn't get any worse," Swinney said.
Then something amazing happened.
C.J. Jones, a Clemson senior walk-on cornerback from Lincolnton, Ga., whose career can be measured in snaps instead of seasons, picked up the ball. Only the best skill-position players on teams are allowed to advance kicks out of the end zone. Seldom-used special-team walk-ons never, ever do it. They are taught that if a ball is in the end zone on a punt return, get away. Only in this one situation -- after a player on the return team has touched the ball -- should a random special-teamer take the ball out. Jones, who clearly has absorbed quite a bit of coaching in his hours of toiling without glory on the practice field, knew this was that extremely specific situation. So he ran. "Go, man," Swinney remembered thinking when he saw Jones cross the goal line. "Let's get a couple more yards."
Jones made it to the nine-yard line. The Tigers would have to punt, and Georgia wound up tacking on another touchdown. But Jones allowed the Tigers to run six more plays. He allowed them to siphon three minutes and 19 seconds off the clock before Georgia could get the ball again to even think about scoring. He allowed the Tigers to punt, moving the ball from the Clemson 26-yard line to the Georgia 36.
Basically, Jones kept Clemson from Clemsoning -- which makes him one of the most important figures in the Tigers' 38-35 win. "It was a huge play," Swinney said. "Very gutsy."
Big games are won and lost on small moments. Jones' play was one on Saturday. The ball Georgia long snapper Nathan Theus sent toward the head of holder Adam Erickson in the third quarter was another. The Bulldogs were kicking a 20-yard field goal -- an extra point, basically -- and the high snap turned an easy three points into a loss of six yards and a turnover on downs. Sometimes, it's just that close. That's why Swinney cautioned against drawing any grand conclusions from the Week 1 result.
"Don't write them off," Swinney said. "And don't crown us."
But we will. That's what we do. In truth, Saturday was a national title elimination game for only one team in Memorial Stadium. Georgia could lose, then run the table and wind up in Pasadena. Such is the power of the SEC. The Bulldogs are far more concerned at this point about mending their wounds and getting ready to face South Carolina between the hedges next week. The winner of that game has the inside track to win the SEC East, but the Bulldogs should be quite concerned after giving up four sacks to the Tigers. South Carolina's defensive end tandem of Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton is far more accomplished than Clemson's, and if the Bulldogs couldn't protect quarterback Aaron Murray from the Tigers, they could struggle to keep the Gamecocks off Murray. "This week's over," Georgia offensive lineman Kolton Houston said. "Next week starts conference play. That's what matters."
For Clemson, it all matters from a perception standpoint. The ACC is considered a flimsy league. For the past two years, it has been the Tigers, Florida State and a bunch of also-rans. That may change with Miami improving, but at the moment, an ACC team that dreams of a national title must do some serious damage out of conference. On Saturday, Clemson knocked off an SEC heavyweight nine months to the day after it knocked off another SEC heavyweight (LSU) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In November, the Tigers will face South Carolina. Though an undefeated run through the ACC is never a guarantee, the Tigers have put themselves in an enviable position.
Swinney will hate to hear this talk. Another form of Clemsoning is winning a big game and then getting upset the following week. South Carolina State probably won't be up to the task next week, but Swinney is smart to keep his players on guard. He can afford to downplay the hype, because now he shouldn't have to politick. His team proved on Saturday it belongs among the nation's elite, and Clemson's schedule will provide the necessary respect. So even though Clemson students mocked the nation's most dominant league with an A-C-C chant as time expired, Swinney can keep his team above the nauseating my-conference-can-beat-up-your-conference fray. "We've got all the respect in the world for the SEC and all that stuff," said Swinney, who won a national title as an Alabama player in 1992. "But it's not about a league. It's about a program. That's the bottom line."
That program, Swinney's program, is one of the most successful in the nation over the past two seasons. Clemson is 22-6 since 2011, and its only losses last year came against 11-win teams. These Tigers have changed the attitude of the program.
An entire stadium waited on Saturday to sigh and bemoan the inevitable Georgia comeback, but that comeback never happened. A walk-on who has learned to be a winner over the past few years made a play. That's why Swinney wishes everyone would stop talking about disappointments past. "People always want to bring up something from five years ago," he said. "We need to move on. We need a different storyline."
What they need is a different definition for one of the most humiliating slang terms in the college football lexicon. With a few more nights like Saturday, the Tigers might make "Clemsoning" mean something entirely different.