In that droll, laconic way of his, Paul Johnson seems to have hit the nail on the head.
Talking to Dabo Swinney before kickoff, Georgia Tech’s head coach shared some thoughts about the palpitations associated with depending so heavily upon so many young players: “We (both) have a bunch of sophomores and red-shirt freshmen playing…most of the time. Sometimes they play better than other times.”
Some will choose to read more into Clemson’s 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech than just that – one youthful team on one particular night playing better than another.
And for the Tigers, certainly, the implications of the setback are more global than the disappointment of a single loss to a capable rival.
On Saturday night, the previously unbeaten Tigers fumbled away their big-picture dream goal. But it’s worth remembering that when the season began – when October began, even – Clemson was hardly thinking about BCS Standings and the possibility of winning a national title.
It was fun while it lasted – checking in on the polls and various computer lists each week, playing ‘what-if,’ and engaging in the exhilarating, nerve-wracking volatility of rubbing shoulders with college football’s finest.
It was also perhaps just a bit premature.
As Johnson and Swinney reminded themselves Saturday night, youth is the rule rather than the exception for programs emerging as two of the league’s, and the nation’s, best.
Clemson has currently allocated half of its scholarships to players with the ‘FR’ designation beside their names, and more help is on the way in the form of a 2012 recruiting class rated, again, among the top 10 in the nation.
A few weeks ago, back when we still talking about waiting for that other shoe to drop on ‘the same old Clemson,’ Swinney offered a hopeful prediction of how it might go down if, or when, the Tigers finally lost: beaten straight up, head-to-head, by a better-on-a-given-day opponent, as opposed to losing their heads in their press clippings and bumbling their way to defeat through an uninspired, unfocused performance.
A year ago, you may recall, Clemson held Georgia Tech’s quarterback to two yards.
Because of what happened in Atlanta on Saturday, Clemson won’t be playing for the BCS championship.
But everything else is still on the table.
Beat Wake Forest two weeks from now and the Tigers will win their division and play in Charlotte for the ACC title the first weekend in December.
In between, they’ll take a shot at another goal – the coveted state championship, on the road against a rival currently more-smothering-than-rolling its way to its own exceptional season.
Sammy Watkins hasn’t lost a step or a move, and Nuke Hopkins still has the ability to go get the football. Tajh Boyd – who lost a game as a starter for the first time since his junior year in high school - is going to study the Georgia Tech film and figure out how to do things a little better. And hopefully Andre Ellington’s ankle and Dwayne Allen’s toe will turn out to be just fine with a week’s rest.
Chad Morris will keep pushing, and Kevin Steele will put that troublesome once-a-season game plan back on the shelf until it’s needed again, whenever that may be.
Over the past two months, the Tigers have learned some things about themselves and the importance of moving on to the next task at hand.
I’ll be surprised if their setback becomes a step-back.