CLEMSON — – As Rashad Greene crossed the Lane Stadium goal line, a stunned feeling settled in over Clemson’s campus.
Every Clemson player gathered to watch Virginia Tech-Florida State Thursday night knew the Seminoles needed a loss if the Tigers had any hopes of a second consecutive trip to the ACC title game.
And with beat-up Maryland the only other team left on FSU’s ACC docket, this was the best chance.
A Hokie team battling through a down season fought hard, taking a 22-20 lead with 2:19 to play.
But they left the Seminoles too much time; E.J. Manuel found Rashad Greene on a screen pass, and the fleet FSU receiver glided through 40 yards of open space for a game-winning touchdown with 40 seconds to play.
“As a fan, it was one of those deals,” said Clemson junior quarterback Tajh Boyd, Manuel’s friend from their Tidewater childhood. “I couldn’t believe it was happening – there were a good bit of us (Clemson players) watching the game.”
The Tigers are unlikely to return to Charlotte – they must beat N.C. State this week and hope against hope that the Terrapins can upset FSU – but they can still enjoy a sweet postseason destination.
Win the next two weeks, and there’s an excellent chance that the Tigers will head to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl as a BCS at-large selection. Both ESPN and CBS Sports.com projected Clemson for a Sugar matchup with Alabama, which fell out of national title contention following Saturday’s home upset loss to Texas A&M.
“Regardless of the situation, we’ve got one common goal set,” Boyd said. “And that’s to win as many games as possible.”
In Dabo Swinney’s fourth season, the Tigers have gained consistency and focus too often absent under Tommy Bowden’s decade-long run. 2011’s 2-4 finish – which followed an 8-0 start – clearly stung, and Swinney vowed his team would learn from its mistakes.
So far, so good. Clemson has made the last three weeks almost boring, belting Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland by an average of 33.3 points per game.
Saturday’s win set the program record for most consecutive wins at Memorial Stadium, and the No.11 Tigers have nine wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1990-91.
With a win over the Wolfpack, they’ll have back-to-back 10-win seasons, and will have the opportunity to reach that milestone in the regular season for the first time since the 1981 national title season.
“The thing I told our team was that it was time to start separating from the pack,” Swinney said. “Put the hammer on the throttle and hammer down. This is when great teams start separating. Last year we weren’t a top-10 team. We did good things but weren’t a top-10 team. We proved that in November. Now we have the opportunity to be a top-10 team.”
It is questionable how much this team has proved by winning six consecutive games by 14 points or more; according to the Sagarin computer ratings, Clemson has the nation’s No.81 strength of schedule, third-worst among the top 30 (ahead of only Utah State and Florida State).
While the Wolfpack administered a 34-13 beating in Raleigh last November, Clemson’s biggest shot at gaining respect will come when South Carolina visits on Nov. 24. If the Tigers can beat the Gamecocks for the first time since 2008, they’ll take a major step towards a Sugar Bowl bid and potential showdown with Alabama (or Georgia, who’ll visit to open the 2013 season).
Clemson will have competition for that at-large bid, but Chad Morris’ high-flying offense and the passel of fans who’ll follow the Tigers to the Big Easy make them an attractive choice.
No offense to the Orange Bowl, but that’d be a far more intriguing scenario than facing a Big East rep like Louisville or Rutgers in south Florida.
Swinney’s bunch will have every opportunity to build national respect - and erase the ugly memories of 2011’s disastrous finish – over the next few weeks.
They don’t control their destiny. They do control how they’ll be perceived.
Perhaps someone should send Rashad Greene a thank-you card.