CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It seems Clemson’s football success has become a double-edged sword for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
No conference would turn down the accolades the Tigers have achieved in the ACC over the last four years. That includes a 34-2 conference record, four consecutive outright conference titles – something not even Bobby Bowden’s dynastic Florida State teams achieved – appearances in the last four College Football Playoffs, two national championships and a compelling argument as the premier team in college football.
“It’s always about, ‘What’s next?'” Swinney said at ACC Kickoff of his team’s maintained success. “You’ve got to show up every year with something to prove. That sense of urgency, we create that all the time.”
The urgency Swinney spoke to, however, seems to have fallen squarely on the rest of the ACC. Consider this: Four different teams have finished second to Clemson in the ACC Atlantic Division since 2015; four different Coastal Division teams have fallen to Clemson in the ACC championship game.
Those teams averaged nine-and-a-half wins per season. Who remembers any of those teams?
Simply put, Clemson’s dominance over the last four seasons created the perception of a giant gap between the Tigers and the rest of the conference: It has been impossible for ACC teams to stand out in the midst of Clemson’s shadow. And with the Tigers returning generational quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a host of future NFL talent, it seems like that shadow can only grow longer in 2019.
Willie Taggart, who is trying to lead FSU back to its position as the standard of the conference – a challenge felt more sharply in Tallahassee, the team’s historical relevance to the game – offered a simple solution to reverse that narrative.
“You’ve got to beat them,” Taggart said. “That’s the only way you’re going to gain that back: You’ve got to beat them. You can’t go and just compete. That’s what they did to gain it, and that’s what we have to do to get it back.”
Easier said than done. No team managed that feat in 2015 or 2018. Florida State, for its part, has dropped four straight to Clemson, with an average scoring deficit of 19.8 points. Pitt managed to squeak out a win in 2016 with a last-second field goal. N.C. State has come close in recent years, losing by single possessions in 2016 and ’17 under coach Dave Doeren (before losing 41-7 in 2018).
When asked how his team might finally close the gap with Clemson this season, Doeren pointed to that first near miss.
“You can’t beat yourself when you play a team as talented as them. You’ve got to make them play on a long field,” Doeren said. “You’ve got to get a lot of takeaways. The year we almost beat them, we got five takeaways from them on defense, played ball-control offense and just needed a few more points.
“We’re constantly looking at how can we be better than we were. How can we close the gap between the teams that we haven’t been able to knock off? And Clemson’s been one of those teams.”
The ACC team that has best competed against Clemson the last two seasons – Atlantic Division foe Syracuse – also is considered the team most likely to challenge the Tigers in 2019.
The Orange’s 27-24 win over Clemson in the Carrier Dome in 2017 remains an elusive goal for the rest of the conference, something that required a three-touchdown performance from quarterback Eric Dungey, and was certainly aided by an injury to Clemson play-caller Kelly Bryant.
The Orange nearly replicated that result in 2018, playing the Tigers into the final minute before a last-second touchdown by Travis Etienne gave the Tigers the game-winning score (it’s also worth noting Lawrence was knocked from that game with an injury; backup Chase Brice led the Tigers to a come-from-behind victory). For Orange coach Dino Babers, it’s that experience that could be the biggest difference when Clemson comes to town on Sept. 14.
“You’ve seen the mountain top, OK? You’ve seen what it looks like,” Babers said. “You know how difficult it is. I think that gives us a little bit of an edge that we know we can.
“That doesn’t mean you will.”
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