CLEMSON — When the new Associated Press top 25 poll came out Sunday afternoon, it created an ominous distinction for Clemson.
The 3-0 Tigers rose a spot, to No.10, entering Saturday’s 8 p.m. nationally televised ACC showdown at No.4 Florida State.
It is Clemson’s first top-10 matchup since Nov. 4, 2000 – when the No.10 Tigers visited No.4 Florida State.
Clemson entered Tallahassee 8-1 in Tommy Bowden’s second season, hoping to prove it belonged as an ACC power.
The Tigers left with their tail between their legs on the (very) wrong end of a 54-7 blowout. FSU finished the season with 10 wins and in the AP top 5 for the 14th consecutive season. Clemson finished 9-3 with a Gator Bowl blowout loss at Virginia Tech’s hands, and didn’t crack the top 10 again for six years, and then only for a week in 2006.
Dabo Swinney led them out of the ACC wilderness last season, starting 8-0 and rising as high as No.6 nationally in the AP poll en route to the program’s first ACC title since 1991.
I’ve only covered the program since 2005, but this week brings some of the same cautious feelings to light. Swinney wants to prove his team belongs among the ACC’s elite – and with ESPN’s popular College GameDay program on hand, this is a perfect time to do it.
A tall task awaits in Doak Campbell Stadium, however. Jimbo Fisher’s team has outscored its opponents 176-3, mashing Wake Forest 52-0 Saturday. In Fisher’s third season, the Seminoles are taking steps towards returning to the national power that Bobby Bowden built before falling off in the 2000s.
They have an experienced, talented quarterback in E.J. Manuel, a vicious, deep defensive line and athletic offensive pieces. Scariest of all, tailback Chris Thompson has returned to health, torching Wake’s defense for touchdown runs of 74 and 80 yards, giving the offense much-needed balance.
Las Vegas oddsmakers believe in FSU; the ‘Noles opened up Sunday as a 13-point favorite.
Clemson is, at best, unproven. A tough 26-19 season-opening win over Auburn lost its luster following Auburn’s meltdown at Mississippi State and a narrow home overtime escape over Louisiana-Monroe.
And it’s hard to say what we learned from blowout wins over overmatched Ball State and Furman. Tajh Boyd will have plenty of weapons to throw to, but an inexperienced offensive line which has mixed and matched due to early-season injuries will face its biggest test this week.
Brent Venables’ defense remains a work in progress; Furman held the ball for over 38 minutes Saturday and rolled up plays of 33, 37 and 39 yards. If the defense doesn’t improve, Venables said, Florida State will “break the scoreboard.”
Swinney has said repeatedly this summer and fall that he won’t really know what his team is made of until “three or four weeks” into the season. It makes sense, given that 62 of 85 scholarship players are freshmen or sophomores.
This young but talented group got a big test in Atlanta, and this week looms exponentially larger.
Win, and the road to another ACC title opens significantly wider.
Lose, and the regrouping and questioning begins.
12 years ago, a newly ascendant Clemson team found out plenty about itself in Tallahassee.
Whether history repeats itself or not will determine just how much fun the rest of this season will be.