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Clemson fails to capitalize ... again

Chants of "SEC, SEC," rained down from the Alabama fans as the Crimson Tide wound down the clock on a 34-10 win over the Tigers. As Clemson fans sought out exits, a rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama followed them out the door.

The Tigers entered the Georgia Dome with hype, talent and the weight of knowing they were playing for the respect of a beleaguered conference. But in the end, all they got was exactly what we've come to expect from this team.

Except that it's never happened quite like this.

Saturday was the latest example of the team's inability to reach that next level that has eluded it under Tommy Bowden. But ultimately, this one may be the toughest to take.

"We got whipped about every way you can get whipped," Bowden said. "Haven't been physically beaten that bad in three years."

The vaunted Thunder and Lightning duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who combined for 1,832 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago, rushed for 20 yards against a swarming Alabama defense that spent so much time in Clemson's backfield that Bowden should charge them rent.

"They came in here fired up, they read a whole lot about me and James," Spiller said. "They came in and were in the right gaps at the right time. They were more physical than we were tonight."

Clemson's Cullen Harper, a budding star after passing for 2,991 yards and 27 scores as a junior, was 20-of-34 for 188 yards and no TDs and was sacked three times as the pass rush kept him from finding any rhythm with his receivers.

"Maybe we needed a wake-up call," Harper said. "We'll have to keep working hard this week and correct our mistakes."

Some wake-up call. It's only the opener and already Clemson has failed to meet expectations. The Tigers came in against No. 24 Alabama ranked ninth, their highest preseason ranking in 17 years, but instead it will be just the latest in a string of heartbreaking defeats.

Add it to 2005, when the Tigers lost 16-13 to Boston College in overtime and 10-9 at Georgia Tech; a win in either would have landed them in the ACC title game; 2006, as they turned a 7-1 record and a No. 10 ranking into a 1-4 finish; and 2007, where they rebounded from back-to-back losses to pull within a win over the Eagles of making it to Jacksonville, only to have it torn from their grasp.

Clemson still has an ACC title to play for, but let's not kid ourselves here: More was expected from the Tigers than merely staying in the conference hunt. This is a team that needed to remain in the national title talk until at least October, for the sake of the program and conference. Losing to a team that was picked to finish third in its own division in the SEC is the worst possible scenario for both.

The ACC hasn't won a BCS game since Florida State beat Virginia Tech for the 1999 national championship and it hasn't had a team finish in the top five in the polls since 2000. The expansion that began with the 2005 season was supposed to usher in a new level of dominance, but perennial powers Florida State and Miami have struggled and the conference has failed to earn a second BCS berth and is 0-3 in its guaranteed games.

The ACC's reputation won't be repaired with one game or one season, but this team could have gone a long way to starting the process, or at least reminding people that this isn't a basketball conference with a football problem. But what we saw against Alabama simply didn't look like a team worthy of the hype, let alone standing as flag bearer for a beleaguered conference.

Alabama had 419 total yards to Clemson's 188. The Tide had 34 first downs, while the Tigers totaled 10. 'Bama dominated the time of possession 41:13 to 18:47. Clemson's only TD came on Spiller's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half. Other than that, the Tide dominated.

Some of the blame can be passed onto a rebuilt offensive line that includes four new starters and was manhandled by Alabama's defensive front. But the line didn't fumble the ball on the Tigers' 31 on the opening drive (that was Jamie Harper), and the line didn't throw an interception with Clemson in Tide territory with under 1:50 to play in the first half (that was Cullen Harper).

As bad as the offense looked, the defense wasn't much better. Clemson has seven starters back from a unit that was No. 9 in total defense and 10th in scoring defensive last season but were systematically dissected by John Parker Wilson and the Tide, who scored on their first three drives, including a 14-play, 83-yard jaunt in the second that ate up 8:16.

Before we mail in Clemson's obit in August, we do need to explore the possibility that what we saw Saturday wasn't so much the Tigers failing as it was Alabama living up to the promise Nick Saban brought with him to Tuscaloosa.

Saban was 6-2 and ranked No. 17 last season before a loss to LSU touched off a slide in which the Tide finished 1-4 and included a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe. It wasn't exactly what Alabama faithful expected out of a $38 million contract but Saban kept the faith with a top-ranked recruiting class to follow up the No. 10-ranked group from the previous year.

You could say Saturday started the Saban Era the Alabama faithful have been clamoring for. Julio Jones, the biggest name of this year's freshman class drew chants of "JULIO, JULIO" in making his first catch and followed it up with a third-quarter touchdown, and the pass rush that was so prominent when Saban led LSU to the national title, controlled the line of scrimmage.

Ultimately, it's too early to say the Tide are back, no matter how impressive they looked against Clemson, a sentiment echoed by Saban.

''Nobody can be satisfied with a one-game performance,'' he said. ''This will be a challenge for our team and it'll be interesting to see how they respond.''

We'll likely know what Alabama is all about after trips to No. 1 Georgia, No. 18 Tennessee, No. 7 LSU and No. 10 Auburn. But what we do know is that Saban has put this program on the cusp of elite status again with the biggest win of his short tenure.

Meanwhile, the Tigers are left wondering what has become of their breakthrough season, the one where they were supposed to show they could win when the spotlight is on.

They'll find solace in the fact that it's only one game, one that doesn't hinder their push to end a 16-year title drought, and that notion may help to soothe the blow suffered after a 24-point loss on the biggest stage Bowden's team has played on.

Given a golden opportunity to make a statement for program and conference, Clemson failed.