CLEMSON — Late Saturday night, Dabo Swinney was in a surprisingly even mood.
Clemson’s head coach had just watched his team’s unbeaten season and outside hope of a BCS national title shot crash-land in an ugly, turnover-filled physical mauling at the hands of Georgia Tech.
But Swinney wasn’t about to let his team feel bad about itself. Disappointed? Sure. But there was plenty to feel good about, even on a night like this.
“Don’t walk out thinking you’re a bad football team,” Swinney said he told his team. “You’re a good football team. Maybe people aren’t patting you on the back. Maybe they’re mad at you. But let’s not walk around with your head down like someone stole your dog. You’re an 8-1 football team that’s won eight in a row.”
That itself is an accomplishment. Given the depths the program reached last year, the fact that Clemson enters its open week 8-1 is a major triumph.
In Swinney’s eyes, the goals he laid out before the season – winning the Atlantic Division, the ACC, beating South Carolina and winning the bowl game – are still well within reach.
And even though it is natural for fans to be disappointed, given Clemson reached its highest BCS ranking ever last week, the Tigers remain on pace for a special season.
They already have two more wins than they did all last season, with three regular-season games remaining.
With a win over Wake Forest Nov. 12, they’ll clinch the Atlantic Division title and a trip to Dec. 3’s ACC title game in Charlotte – and have a chance to win the program’s first ACC title since 1991.
Swinney chose to look at the big picture, saying “one day we’re going to have that special year where we put it all together (and win a national title).”
Clemson fans would be wise to listen to that logic. 1981’s national title was a blessing for the program, but also a curse. That, along with a run of sustained success under Danny Ford, created a culture of entitlement among some fans.
When I suggested on my Twitter feed last week that an Orange Bowl berth would be a great accomplishment for this team, some fans claimed to be “insulted.”
If they were insulted by a BCS berth, I’m not sure what they thought about 2010.
Here’s the truth: what Swinney and Chad Morris have done in 10 months’ time is remarkable.
Four turnovers against a good Georgia Tech defense and clock-chewing offense were inexcusable, but the offensive core of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Andre Ellington, DeAndre Hopkins and Dwayne Allen - the key behind this turnaround – are all juniors or younger, and only Allen appears a serious threat to leave early for the NFL draft.
The atmosphere and attitude around this program is completely different than it was last November. Now, there’s a feeling good things can happen – in the next two months and the next two years.
No wonder Dabo handled defeat so well Saturday night.