CLEMSON — Clemson began the season in the Georgia Dome by winning a measure of respect for the ACC.
Or so it seemed.
Clemson’s 26-19 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic win over Auburn was impressive at the time, but the victory was devalued with every subsequent Auburn defeat. The east Alabama Tigers finished the season at 3-9, firing coach Gene Chizik two years after a BCS national title and replacing him with former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
26 days from now, Clemson will return to the Georgia Dome, again defending the ACC’s honor against a high-quality SEC opponent in No.9 LSU. When the No.14 Tigers take part in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve, they’ll seek a springboard win for their program – but also for the ACC.
“This is a great opportunity for us to show the strength of our program, play against one of the high-quality teams,” said senior tight end Brandon Ford. “LSU, they’re a great team with great coaching, great players. If we can win this game it’ll speak so much for our program as well as our conference.”
Ford stated Tuesday that there have been “plenty of ACC teams that have gone down and beaten up on SEC teams,” but that hasn’t been the case this season. The ACC is 1-5 against the SEC this season, with Clemson the only victor.
In fact, Clemson is the only ACC team to stay within 10 points of an SEC foe this season. Tennessee beat N.C. State 35-21 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, Georgia whipped Georgia Tech 42-10, Florida beat Florida State 37-26, Vanderbilt routed Wake Forest 55-21 and South Carolina beat the Tigers 27-17.
Ford says he doesn’t believe the SEC is more physical than the ACC.
“I don’t buy into that stuff,” he said. “People will say that to get under your skin at times. I don’t get why they have the motto of them saying we’re not physical, all that. Everybody doesn’t play their best games on certain days. We had two games this year (Florida State and South Carolina) where we didn’t play up to our standards and came up short.
“All that stuff about them being on top, it goes to show, that can be proven wrong. There have been teams that beat them that aren’t in the ACC. Utah beat Alabama in 2009 (in the Sugar Bowl), so that said a lot about where the strength of the SEC comes from. Stuff like that is irrelevant to me. It’s any given team on any given day, and it comes down to the team that’s going to perform and execute.”
In fairness, the SEC has earned a solid reputation. SEC teams have won the last six BCS national titles, and Alabama will play Notre Dame for a seventh straight title on Jan. 7.
“The SEC is the premier conference in the country, not just in the South,” said senior cornerback Xavier Brewer. “They’ve proven that because they win the games they need to win. They win the big games and all their bowl games. This is another opportunity for us to prove we’re at that elite level and can play with guys like that. I feel we recruit the type of talent to play with them, we’ve got to prove it.”
Coupled with the 2013 season opener against Georgia, the Tigers have two excellent opportunities to do just that.
“I feel like it’s really exciting for us as a team. We want to be a powerhouse program,” said senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard. “To do that, we have to play the best teams in the conference. Playing LSU should be a great game for the players and a great game for the program.”