December 5, 2006
CLEMSON -- The sick feeling was inescapable and almost palpable as Clemson's players and coaches took in the ACC football championship game between Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
It wasn't long ago that the Tigers were deemed the favorites to win the Atlantic Division and play for their first conference title since 1991.
It didn't help that the Demon Deacons and Yellow Jackets -- not Florida State, not Miami and not Virginia Tech -- played for a trophy that Clemson believed it was plenty good enough to claim.
Wake Forest? The Tigers awoke in the fourth quarter and made quick work of the Deacons in early October, surmounting a 14-point deficit to win 27-17. Georgia Tech? The Jackets didn't have a chance on Oct. 21 in Death Valley, succumbing to a 321-yard rushing onslaught in a 31-7 Clemson victory.
The Tigers still have a chance to claim a ninth win in a bowl game, and nine-win seasons haven't come around often lately in Tigertown. But anyone who looks back on 2006 and says it was a huge success is blowing smoke.
When Clemson squandered a 14-point lead late in the third quarter and lost at home to rival South Carolina, the season was officially stamped a disappointment. Watching Wake beat Tech in an ugly title game only poured a few gallons of salt into the wide-open wounds.
The Nov. 25 loss to the Gamecocks came less than a month after Clemson strutted to Virginia Tech with a 7-1 record and a No. 10 ranking. The Tigers were coming off the thrashing of Georgia Tech, and some national observers were declaring them the best one-loss team in college football. Even a BCS at-large bid was considered a possibility.
But something mysterious happened within the five-day period between those two games. Clemson just didn't look like the same team in losing three of its last four games to tumble out of the Top 25.
The Tigers looked inept in the 24-7 loss at Virginia Tech. Not much changed in the last three games -- a 13-12 home loss to Maryland, a narrow win over a bad N.C. State team, and the painful defeat to USC.
The loss to the Gamecocks hurt the most because it was Clemson's first in the series since 2001. But the surprising home defeat to the Terrapins ended up costing the Tigers a trip to Jacksonville. Had Clemson won that game, the division title would have been assured after Boston College's upset loss at Miami on Thanksgiving night.
The defining moments of Clemson's season will not be the decisive assault on Georgia Tech. It won't be Gaines Adams' amazing touchdown return of a botched field goal against Wake. And it won't be a 27-20 triumph at Florida State that snapped a long losing streak in Tallahassee.
The three snapshots Clemson will remember most are the three times the Tigers were in perfect position to beat South Carolina, Maryland and BC. On all three occasions, the offense failed miserably.
At BC in September, Clemson had first-and-goal from the three-yard line in the first overtime. The Eagles already had settled for a field goal, so a touchdown would have won it. Tailback C.J. Spiller was stuffed for a four-yard loss on a slow-developing stretch play to the right side, and the Tigers ended up kicking a field goal after quarterback Will Proctor was sacked for a nine-yard loss. The Eagles won in double overtime, after blocking an extra-point attempt by Jad Dean.
Against Maryland, Clemson's sputtering offense finally showed some life and had first-and-goal from the four-yard line with about three minutes left. Three straight runs and a penalty left Clemson kicking a go-ahead field goal that was immaterial after Maryland drove for a field goal of its own -- the game-winner. The Tigers did not score a touchdown against the Terrapins.
Against South Carolina, the Tigers moved swiftly down the field in pursuit of the game-winning touchdown. But a first-and-10 from the 12 was ruined after two running plays totaled a yard, and Proctor was sacked for a 10-yard loss. A game-tying field goal attempt by Dean hooked left with 13 seconds remaining.
Looking back, it would be easy to blame the last two losses on a defense that regressed in spirit and production over the final four games. It would be even easier to blame Proctor, who barely resembles a Division I-AA quarterback at this point.
But the fact remains that the Tigers easily could have won those three close games, and probably should have won two. Most of the blame should be put on the shoulders of coach Tommy Bowden and second-year offensive coordinator Rob Spence, whose tentativeness cost the Tigers dearly.
Against Maryland, it was clear that Bowden and Spence were playing for overtime. Given how close the Tigers were to the end zone, that was hard to understand.
Against South Carolina, the Gamecocks put 10 men in the box after the Tigers reached the red zone. But Clemson kept plugging away fruitlessly with the run, gaining just five yards on four runs by James Davis. By the time Bowden and Spence decided to throw the ball -- on third-and-nine -- USC was ready for it. The Gamecocks blitzed a safety and a linebacker, and the slow-developing play never had a chance.
Earth to Bowden and Spence: Proctor might be bad, but even bad quarterbacks can throw a fade against man-to-man coverage.
Conservative play-calling and an inability to score touchdowns cost the Tigers a trip to Jacksonville last season in losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech. It was the same old story in 2006, and that story is getting old for a team that was capable of rewriting the script.
DEFENSE, REBOUNDS LIFT HOOPS
Coach Oliver Purnell's fourth Clemson basketball team might be undersized in the post. Its shooting from outside and from the free throw line might cost it a few games in the ACC.
But through nine games, the Tigers proved they'll likely have a chance in almost every game they play, because of dogged defense and tenacious rebounding. Those were the hallmarks of a 9-0 start highlighted by a victory over Mississippi State and dominating wins at South Carolina and Minnesota.
The three wins came against teams that are probably mediocre at best, but Purnell had to love how the games were won. In Minnesota, the Tigers took 21 more shots thanks to 24 Gopher turnovers and a 24-14 advantage on the offensive boards. At USC, Clemson enjoyed a 21-12 margin in offensive rebounds while holding the Gamecocks to 39.6 percent shooting.
The Tigers hit some big shots in those two games, the two biggest on three-pointers by K.C. Rivers in the final minute of the first half. Clemson also was 12-for-31 from long range at Minnesota, heartening fans who thought shooting might be an insurmountable weakness this season.
The Tigers also could be hurt in the post, after the departure of center Akin Akingbala. But defense and rebounding should give this team a legitimate shot at snapping its streak of eight straight seasons without an NCAA Tournament bid.