CLEMSON — Four days later, the hurt still remained fresh for Dalton Freeman.
Clemson’s All-America senior center grew up 20 minutes from Williams-Brice Stadium, in the small town of Pelion. Saturday night, he watched his last shot at beating hated rival South Carolina slip away in a 27-17 defeat that dealt a severe blow to the Tigers’ hopes of a second consecutive BCS bid.
Has the disappointment faded?
“Not really,” Freeman admitted.
Clemson won’t begin bowl practice until Dec. 8, and when it does, one of the biggest questions will be: how does this team bounce back?
Will they be excited about playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against an SEC team, or, possibly, in the Sugar Bowl (Clemson remains 14th in the BCS standings, and could sneak in, especially if TCU upsets Oklahoma this week).
How the Tigers respond will show the measure of their collective character, Freeman believes.
“I think what determines how good a team is how they’re able to handle adversity and how well they’re able to come back from adversity,” he said. “Adversity is the companion of a champion. Getting beat at Florida State earlier in the season, it’d have been easy to fold up the tent, knowing how much that game meant, the impact that game had on division hopes, ACC hopes. This team came back to work, and I really believe that’s what will happen this week.”
A Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup would likely pit Clemson against LSU, Georgia or Texas A&M in a sold-out, New Year’s Eve matchup of top-15 teams. That, says junior quarterback Tajh Boyd, is reason for excitement.
“Sitting there at the (team) meeting, coach (Dabo Swinney) was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to play Georgia or LSU,’ and you see guys smiling,” Boyd said. “I was smiling. Top-tier programs, top tier teams, great defenses. The opportunity for us to go out and win, I like that.”
In Swinney’s four-plus year tenure, the Tigers are 4-5 against SEC competition, with wins over South Carolina, Kentucky and Auburn (twice), and a loss to Auburn coupled with four against the Gamecocks.
Beating SEC foes, Freeman knows, is crucial in building the program’s reputation.
“Whenever you want to be the best, you have to play the best,” he said. “That’s the only way you become the best. As competitors, you want to go out each Saturday and play against the top opponents, the SEC, best conference, to prove yourself and get some respect. We’re not there but we’re getting there.”
Equally important, Freeman said, is building momentum for the offseason. The bowl will be the final bow for he and his classmates, but much of a young roster will return next season.
2011’s offseason was marked by repeated questions and references to the 70-33 Orange Bowl whipping at West Virginia’s hands, which Freeman says was brought about, in part, by a lack of focus.
“We were coming off what we thought was the pinnacle at that time, winning the ACC, and for whatever reason we weren’t mature enough to handle it,” he said. “I think we’ve completely grown and matured and I’m excited to see how we handle this little bit of adversity.”
He believes last season’s problems are just that – last season’s.
“Especially with the way we ended last season in the bowl game, the lack of focus we had, I think this is a completely different team, much more mature,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have any problems like we did the last year.”
Spending another offseason like that, Boyd said, is unthinkable.
“At the end of the day, I feel like any team feels like they’ve got to win that bowl game,” he said. “It’s such a momentum-shifter. Last year we lost that bowl game but we had such a strong leadership group. You don’t want to have to sit around the whole offseason thinking about that last game you played and lost. You’ve got to put yourself in position to win the game.”