CLEMSON — – Optimism runs free in Dabo Swinney’s soul.
Following Saturday’s dispiriting 34-13 loss to South Carolina, Clemson’s third defeat in four games and third consecutive loss to its bitter in-state rival, Swinney said he was disappointed and angry about the game. That it would eat at him for 365 days.
Then, he channeled a little Animal House-era John Belushi.
“Are we playing our best football right now?” he asked. “Far from it. But it’s not too late to get going, snap out of it, perform better. …. Just when you think it’s over, when you think it’s finished, that’s when it’s only beginning.”
In that sense, Swinney is right. No.21 Clemson (9-3) has a major opportunity this week – a rematch with No.5 Virginia Tech (10-1) in the ACC title game. Win, and Clemson has its first ACC title since 1991.
That seemed like a foregone conclusion Oct. 1, when the Tigers thumped Tech 23-3 in Blacksburg, handing the Hokies their only loss of the season.
Over the last month, however, the teams’ fortunes have been widely divergent. Since losing to Clemson, Tech has won seven straight, including a 38-0 beatdown of Virginia that clinched the Coastal Division.
Clemson has lost three of its last four, with back-to-back smackdowns at the hands of N.C. State and South Carolina.
Over its last 17 quarters – the fourth quarter of a 59-38 win over North Carolina and the last four games – Clemson has been outscored 147-74. The Tigers have averaged 18.5 points per game over their last four, and the offense – particularly sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd – looks lost.
A win in Charlotte would erase the pain, but right now, this feels an awful lot like 2006.
In case you’ve forgotten that team – or blocked it out – Tommy Bowden’s bunch started 7-1, capped off by a 31-7 beatdown of Georgia Tech with ESPN’s College GameDay crew in town.
That was the peak. The rest of the year was a long, slow slide down the mountain, with an ugly 24-7 loss at Virginia Tech the biggest push. Clemson lost four of five to end the season, including a desultory Music City Bowl defeat to Kentucky.
Swinney remains confident – at least publicly – that this team can rebound and avoid a similar fate, and says hard work is the answer.
“You’ve got to keep working, keep grinding, you don’t have to like it, but you don’t quit,” he said. “You don’t ever give up. Go back to work. That’s what football team will have to do.”
Late Saturday night, team leaders like Boyd and junior tight end Dwayne Allen said they’d already put the USC defeat behind them. But what are they supposed to say?
This group looked beaten, battered and bruised in Williams-Brice Stadium.
Boyd looked like a shell of the player he was in October, completing only 11 passes for 89 yards.
And now they get to face a Hokie team motivated to avenge its only defeat of the season.
You have to wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel just might be a train.