CLEMSON — Saturday night, Dabo Swinney’s victory celebration was short, but sweet.
“We’ve got the Smokin’ Pig (barbeque) coming tonight, and I am pumped about that,” Clemson’s head coach said. “And then we’ve got to flip the script.”
Such are the realities of playing football on Thursday nights.
No.14 Clemson had precious little time to savor an uneven 38-17 win over Virginia Tech that improved its record to 6-1 and kept hopes of a second consecutive ACC title alive.
There was the matter of preparing for Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. trip to Wake Forest, a place where the Tigers have won only two of their last five trips dating back to 2003.
Combine that with Clemson’s Thursday night curse – the Tigers have not beaten an ACC opponent on Thursday night since winning at N.C. State in 2005 – and there is ample reason for concern.
It might not register on the national radar, but Swinney and Co. must figure out their Thursday night problems for a promising season to stay on track.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get ready,” Swinney said. “The mentality of our season starts tomorrow. That’s our mentality. That’s the way it needs to be. That’s all we control.”
The Tigers haven’t played a Thursday night game since losing at Georgia Tech in 2009, and that’s probably just fine with them. Their recent history has been checkered at best. In 2006, a 24-7 meltdown at Virginia Tech triggered a freefall from a top-10 ranking to an 8-5 finish.
Two years later, Tommy Bowden coached his last game of a decade-long run as the Tigers’ head coach in an ugly 12-7 loss at Wake Forest. Four days later, he resigned under pressure, beginning the Swinney era.
And who can forget Georgia Tech building a 24-0 lead against Clemson in September 2009, only to see the Tigers storm all the way back for a 27-24 fourth-quarter lead – and then watch as Tech rallied for a 30-27 win.
In his three-plus years leading the program, Swinney has changed plenty of perceptions. He’s won two ACC division titles in three full seasons, as well as the program’s first ACC title in 20 years. Saturday marked the 11th consecutive home win, tying a program record; he spoke, as he often does, of changing the culture.
Three years have passed since Clemson last played a Thursday night game – that weird night on the Flats. So it is unfair to pin the Thursday curse strictly on Swinney’s shoulders. That night, he spoke about how his team had turned a corner; two months later, it clinched its first trip to the ACC title game, a hurdle which consistently tripped Bowden.
To clear this hurdle, focus will be crucial. Clemson’s Saturday night curfew was midnight, and Sunday, normally an off-day, was reserved for a Tuesday-like practice.
“We’re going right back to work,” he said. “You’re only as good as your last game. We have a huge game Thursday. If we go to Wake Forest and lay an egg, everyone forgets about the rest.”
A year ago, the Tigers started 8-0 before a loss at Georgia Tech started a 2-4 finish, capped by the Orange Bowl embarrassment.
The seeds of a fast finish are planted now. No time to wait.
“We didn’t finish good last year,” Swinney said. “We had a great season, but all anyone wanted to talk about was what we didn’t do. It was a long list of what we did and a short list of what we didn’t. But people remember November. It’s not the start – it’s the finish.”