Where do the Tigers go from their Black Saturday?
For certain, to Charlotte and back to work.
And then? Back to the drawing board? Into the tank? Or on to Orange Bowl?
The Tigers will write the climactic chapter to the story of their 2011 season this week when they face surging, third-ranked Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.
They’ll move on from there to a bowl game – Orange or other – and then almost directly into off-season preparations for what they hope will be a more complete 2012 season.
The Tigers have done a lot of good things this year. Their future, in terms of young talent and potential, is bright.
But the glass-half-full unexpectedly has a crack in it.
Clemson’s longsuffering fans are looking for a sign to assure them that Dabo Swinney, Chad Morris and Kevin Steele have not only a long-term plan, but also some short-term answers, to take the Tigers to their promised land.
Losing to South Carolina for three straight years – a phenomenon unknown in the lifetime of any Tiger fan under 40 – is a tough pill to swallow. (Even though, to be fair, these are no longer your grandfather’s Gamecocks).
The ease with which the Gamecocks manhandled the Tigers Saturday night is more than a little disturbing.
South Carolina’s defensive front was so much better than Clemson’s offensive line that nothing else really mattered. The Gamecocks owned the flip side of the equation, as well, by executing their own offensive game plan against what, at the bottom line, proved to be negligible resistance.
Perhaps even more disturbing is that the Gamecocks – a really good team - didn’t do much of anything different than what NC State – a mediocre team - did a week earlier.
Last week, Swinney said that Clemson had a turnover problem, plain and simple.
As it turns out, the Tigers’ troubles are a bit deeper and broader than that.
When Tajh Boyd threw a fourth-quarter interception Saturday night –the Tigers’ first and only turnover of the game – the Gamecocks led 27-13 and were already putting the icing on their victory celebration.
And the other side of the turnover equation – the zero on USC’s side of the ledger – is indicative of the defense’s inability to impose its will on a quality opponent.
To give credit where it’s due, the Tiger defense made more than a few key stops along the way that made Clemson’s 8-0 start possible. But with the exception of the Virginia Tech game back on the first of October, the defense hasn’t provided a consistent, game-changing presence.
A victory over Virginia Tech this week would provide welcome relief. But it will take more than an ACC championship to heal the damage both inflicted, and self-inflicted, to Clemson’s confidence and upward trajectory over the past month.
Clemson fans – the more reasonable ones, at least – are back in wait-and-see mode.
They thought the Tigers were onto something, and now, while they want to believe, they’re not so sure.
It will be 366 days before they get another shot at the Gamecocks, who have won the last three meetings by a combined score of 97-37 and who aren’t likely to step off a cliff between now and next November.
Whatever happens this weekend, it’s certain to seem like an eternity.