Death Valley is their fortress. And come Saturday night, Clemson players know they must use their home field to their great advantage.
That is simply how it works at Memorial Stadium.
Flash back to the opener against top-five opponent Georgia, with all the noise, the overstuffed grandstands, the goose-bump-raising run down The Hill with Dabo Swinney memorably showing off his 4.4 40 skills. Clemson won 38-35 thanks to an assist from its manic crowd.
Georgia offensive lineman Chris Burnette, a fifth-year senior used to his fair share of ear-popping SEC stadiums, admitted, “Clemson was one of the more electric games and stadiums and atmospheres that I've been in since I've been playing.”
Everybody at Clemson expects a more electric atmosphere against No. 6 Florida State, given the higher stakes on the line. Both teams not only want to keep their national championship hopes alive, but the winner here gets the upper hand in the race to the ACC title game.
To that end, the Clemson athletic department announced this week that it wants to break the Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium on the first defensive snap of the game. The current record -- 137.5 decibels -- was set just last week at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City during a Chiefs game.
Florida State practiced all week with noise piped in, standard procedure when it hits the road. But Clemson is not Pitt, nor is it Boston College. Clemson is a place where noise truly does become a factor.
The Seminoles have not won at Clemson since 2001, but they are not alone in their Death Valley struggles. Swinney is 18-2 in ACC home games (.900), the highest winning percentage in league history. He recently moved ahead of former Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, who had a 12-1-1 record at home against league foes from 1990 to '93. Bobby Bowden is third on the all-time list for home winning percentage at .861, with a 62-10 record in home ACC games at Florida State.
“Playing here in Death Valley, we’re trying not to ever lose a game,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “It’s a great atmosphere; the fans support us and it’s a great place to play. When we come out here, we don’t want anybody to invade our territory.”
South Carolina was the last team to do the invading, winning last year in Death Valley. But you have to go back to 2010 to find the last ACC team to win in Death Valley: Miami, 30-21. The Hurricanes went into the game as the higher-ranked team and did not let the surroundings intimidate them.
“It’s not intimidating because once you’re on the field, you eliminate all the distractions in the stands,” said Miami receiver Allen Hurns, who played special teams as a freshman in that game. “You have to focus on what you have to get accomplished.”
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston also tried to downplay the advantages the Tigers have playing at home, saying, “All the noise stuff, the way we communicate on the field and the way we do things, I don’t really think that’s going to be a big factor. From the momentum standpoint, if the crowd gets into it and their players start getting amped up, that will probably be a big factor in the game, but the noise I don’t think has nothing to do with our offense.”
Winston has never experienced Death Valley, nor an atmosphere anywhere close to the one he will be a part of Saturday, so he can only assume what awaits him and his teammates.
His counterpart, Tajh Boyd, already knows.
“Clemson is different from any stadium I’ve ever played at because the fans truly are a factor,” Boyd said. “A lot of teams like to call their field the 12th man and this and that, but Clemson really does have an influence. If you look at that redshirt sophomore year, when we won those three games in a row -- Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech -- the Auburn game, I really, truly believe the interception came because it was so loud. It was crazy. The defense feeds off of that. The offense feeds off of that. It’s a ridiculous place to play in.
“The Florida State game [in 2011], whoever sacked Clint Trickett that year, the place just went into an uproar. Same way with the Georgia game this year. It’s live every game, but you get one of those real huge teams coming in here and it’s a ridiculous place to play at.”
For the record, it was Rennie Moore who had the key sack on Trickett on fourth down late in the game, with the Seminoles trying to drive for the winning score.
There was plenty to play for in that game. Both teams were in the Top 25, with ACC title hopes hanging in the balance. This game, though, means so much more. It just might be the best home atmosphere any Clemson player has experienced.
“Our fans, the environment they create, it's very, very loud, and then we've got good players that have really bought into taking a lot of pride in playing here at home,” Swinney said. “If you’re going to be a consistent program, you have to be consistent at home. Our guys have done a great job of that over the last few years.”
Indeed, home-field advantage could be the difference in the game.
University of Georgia reporter David Ching and ACC reporter Heather Dinich contributed to this report.