Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson into a Top 10 program, laying a foundation for success that should last well into the future.
But the rise of the Tigers also has coincided with the re-emergence of division rival Florida State, a team that once dominated the ACC without much in the way of competition. Given the way Florida State thoroughly defeated Clemson last weekend, some have suggested the Noles have now widened the gap between themselves and everybody else in the league.
If that is indeed the case, what exactly does that mean for Clemson moving forward? Certainly there is half a season left to be played, and it would be foolish to overreact to one game. But Clemson was built to win a championship this season, with a veteran quarterback in Tajh Boyd returning to deliver on that promise. The Tigers were the slam-dunk choice to win the ACC in the preseason.
This was not supposed to be Florida State’s year.
But the Noles have won the last two meetings between the teams now, and have seemingly one-upped the Tigers at every turn: at quarterback, with depth, and most significantly on the recruiting trail. That was completely evident in the 51-14 victory Saturday night.
Clemson was thought to have the edge with Boyd. Instead, Jameis Winston further added to his nickname and is now firmly entrenched as a legitimate Heisman contender. Depth at receiver, running back and on the defense stood out throughout the course of the game as well, giving Florida State the edge at virtually every position.
That has a direct correlation to recruiting, where Florida State has been the best in the ACC since Jimbo Fisher was promoted to head coach following the 2009 season. Swinney has done a fine job himself. Each of his five recruiting classes has been ranked in the top 20 by ESPN.com, including three consecutive top-13 rankings.
But each of Fisher’s four classes have been top 10, including the No. 1 class in 2011 and the No. 2 class in 2012. In the latest ESPN.com recruiting rankings for 2014, Florida State sits at No. 2. Clemson is at No. 13.
All of this suggests both programs are positioned to be at the forefront of the Atlantic Division year in and year out. There could very well be perennial Top-10 matchups between these two teams, the way we have seen over the last two seasons.
But Clemson has to now find a way to one-up Florida State.
It might not happen next year. Winston will be back for at least one more season. Boyd will be gone. Sammy Watkins most likely will be gone. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris could be gone, too. Clemson is not going to fall apart without them. But with Winston returning, Florida State will most likely be the preseason choice in 2014.
To be sure, the loss on Saturday night stung deeper than most, given all the expectations for Clemson. Boyd said in a phone interview with ESPN.com that he did not sleep after the loss, and did a thorough self-evaluation when he studied the game tape Monday, wishing he could have done more to help his teammates.
Swinney has caught flak for saying earlier this week if the teams played 10 times, "We'd probably win five, they'd probably win five."
When asked whether Noles had separated from the rest of the ACC, and more specifically, Clemson Boyd said, “No, not at all. I don’t think so. They’re a really great program, but they’re not 37 points better than us. It just happened to be like that. We had things that didn’t go our way and it just snowballed from there. It’s college football and anything can happen, but that was the most disappointing thing. We didn’t put our best foot forward at all.”
Clemson rebounded after losing to Florida State in 2012 to finish with 11 wins and a victory over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. The Tigers remain in the Top 10 after the loss last week and would be in position to get an at-large berth to the BCS if they win the remainder of their games, including the regular-season finale at South Carolina.
Boyd mentioned that as a motivating factor headed into the game this Saturday against Maryland.
“We had the senior group talk and just said we have to put it behind us,” Boyd said. “As disappointing as it was and as high as the expectations were, we still can achieve a great season. That’s what great teams do. They bounce back. They rebound.”
Still, Boyd said the mood around the Clemson campus remained “gloomy” four days after the loss. There is no getting around the realization that to get back to the ACC title game, the Tigers need to win all their ACC games and have Florida State lose twice.
Based on what we have seen out of Florida State and the rest of the league, it is hard to imagine the Noles finishing with two league losses. So for now, Clemson finds itself in an all-too familiar spot.
Chasing Florida State.