CLEMSON — In modern college football, you only have so much control over your schedule.
Contracts are signed years in advance.
12-team league rotations are set in stone.
What you control is how you play – a conundrum that Clemson is handling with aplomb.
The Tigers are a top-10 team. A team that can score with anyone outside Eugene. A team that is the clear No.2 team in the ACC, behind Florida State.
Here’s the problem: its schedule is softer than the housing market. Auburn – two years removed from a BCS national title – is a 2-7 dumpster fire. Virginia Tech looks far removed from the beast that dominated the ACC for the last eight seasons, with a 4-5 record following a 27-12 thumping at Miami.
Of the Tigers’ eight wins, only three have come against teams with winning records – 6-4 Duke, 5-4 Wake Forest and 6-3 Ball State. That’s it.
The next two weeks offer little resistance: a 4-5 Maryland team on its fifth quarterback of the season – freshman converted linebacker Sean Petty and a 5-4 N.C. State team coming off a 33-6 belting at the hands of a Virginia team which entered Carter-Finley Stadium riding a six-game losing streak.
Clemson doesn’t control its ACC fate: to make its second consecutive ACC title game, it must beat the Terrapins and Wolfpack and hope the Hokies or Terrapins can upset Florida State.
What they do control? Their quest for a second consecutive BCS bid, potentially in New Orleans’ Sugar Bowl against an attractive SEC foe.
To quote an old Andre Agassi camera ad, image is everything.
It matters that the Tigers whipped Wake Forest 42-13 with an ESPN Thursday night audience watching. And it matters that they followed it up with a 56-20 mauling of Duke, piling up 719 yards of total offense, second-best in program history.
“With the type of situation we’re in, style points matter,” said junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “This is a BCS (thing), that’s what our goal is.”
Just winning isn’t enough. You have to win big.
That’s been a problem for Clemson in recent years: taking care of business when it was expected to.
The Tigers of old played down to opponents, lost games they shouldn’t despite superior talent and facilities.
It’s essentially why Dabo Swinney, not Tommy Bowden, occupies a spacious head coach’s office inside Memorial Stadium’s WestZone.
Swinney had to learn the hard way, too, dropping inexcusable losses at Maryland in 2009, Boston College in 2010 and N.C. State a year ago.
The past two weeks have shown they’ve changed. Swinney and players constantly talk about playing “to a standard”, which seems higher than the opposition most of the ACC can provide this fall.
Win out, and they’ll get a reward no matter what Florida State does. The next two weeks are essentially glorified warm-ups for one of South Carolina’s most anticipated visits ever.
The Gamecocks are 7-2, and will likely be 9-2 when they enter Death Valley for a likely top-12 showdown. Swinney hasn’t beaten Steve Spurrier since a 2008 win that sealed his ascension from interim to full-time head coach, and Spurrier knows he has the upper hand, as evidenced by a series of verbal barbs he’s thrown at Swinney and Clemson.
Beat South Carolina, and a BCS bid is well within reach: the Tigers play an exciting, TV-friendly brand of offense, and they’d surely fulfill the BCS at-large requirements of nine wins and a top-14 ranking in the final BCS regular-season poll.
An orange-hued Bourbon Street for a Sugar Bowl showdown with LSU? That’d be far sweeter than an Orange Bowl matchup with, say, Louisville.
The Tigers control that destiny. And they’ve shown they have a firm hand on the steering wheel.