CLEMSON — Late last Saturday night, the chant broke out in the northwest corner of Memorial Stadium.
“SEC! SEC! SEC!”
It was the one chant Clemson fans who had packed the stadium for the Tigers’ first night game in over two years didn’t want to hear.
South Carolina 27, Clemson 17 was another opportunity for the program’s critics to remind Dabo Swinney and Co. that they hadn’t arrived yet. Another night where great defense and smashmouth football beat flash, the Tigers’ fourth consecutive loss to their rivals.
It makes Clemson’s New Year’s Eve date in Atlanta all that much more important.
While the Tigers finished just short of a BCS bowl bid, their trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl will be against a talented SEC team in No.9 LSU, another chance to change national perception.
Like it or not, the SEC remains the gold standard for college football. The league boasts the last six BCS national champions – Texas’ 41-38 win over Southern California in 2005 was the last non-SEC champ.
Alabama can make it seven with a win over Notre Dame Jan. 7; the Crimson Tide’s scintillating 32-28 SEC Championship win over Georgia was a de facto national semifinal.
Beating an SEC team in the ATL would cap Clemson’s first 11-win season since 1981’s national title season and build momentum for 2013.
It’s also the only way left to validate 2012’s success to those who argue it was built on the back of a weak ACC.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher railed about their one-loss teams being ranked below two-loss teams in the BCS standings, a phenomenon largely due to the ACC’s weaknesses.
Five of the Tigers’ 10 wins came against bowl-eligible teams – Ball State, Duke, Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Virginia Tech – but only Ball State finished with more than seven wins. Georgia Tech required a special waiver from the NCAA to qualify with a 6-7 record after qualifying for – and losing – the ACC title game due to Miami and North Carolina’s bowl bans.
Clemson opened the season in Atlanta with a 26-19 win over SEC foe Auburn, but that loss looked worse by the week as AU collapsed in a disastrous 3-9 season that cost coach Gene Chizik his job.
The Tigers lost both their games against top-25 teams in Florida State and South Carolina.
Swinney has said repeatedly over the past four years that he wants to establish his program as one of the nation’s best, and the best way to do that is by beating SEC foes.
The Tigers are 4-5 against SEC teams in his tenure, with a win over South Carolina, two over Auburn and one over Kentucky.
Clemson lives in the SEC footprint and regularly recruits against SEC teams.
Winning in Atlanta – or in the 2013 season opener against Georgia – would send a message that Clemson is not to be taken lightly.
In other words, there’s more on the line New Year’s Eve than chicken sandwiches.