Euphoria and caution at Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C. -- At the top of the steep, tree-lined hill behind Clemson's Memorial Stadium on Saturday, 6-year-old Levi Murphy, decked out in his purple Clemson jersey, was buying a game program with his dad before the kickoff against No. 5 Georgia.

"I've been waiting all year for this," he gushed.

"So have I," said the vendor, handing the program to the wide-eyed, waist-high fan.

Finally, it was well worth the wait in the ACC.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock of Clemson's 38-35 upset of Georgia, the raucous crowd in Death Valley began to chant "A-C-C! A-C-C!"

From the SEC-type atmosphere surrounding the game days in advance, to the instant classic on the field, Clemson delivered. Not only did the win over Georgia soften the blow of Virginia Tech's loss to Alabama and North Carolina's loss to South Carolina, but Clemson's win made those games all but irrelevant.

With one win over a top-five SEC team -- and no embarrassing losses to FCS teams -- the ACC came out a winner in Week 1. Clemson, a microcosm of the entire conference in its search for respect, as well as its sensitivity to being perceived as failing to deliver on the big stage, has proved it is a program to be taken seriously.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, September started with a national title contender in the ACC.

Woe be to the naysayers who still dare utter the phrase "pull a Clemson."

It's a phrase those within the program have come to despise and resent, because it wasn't too long ago that it still rang true.

It took years for Clemson to develop the reputation as a team that collapsed in the clutch, one that struck fear into the hearts of its own fan base, which never knew what to expect against an unheralded opponent, let alone a ranked team.

It has taken years for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to change that perception, but the atmosphere alone this past weekend was evidence that he is succeeding, as so much of the anticipation and excitement leading up to the game was predicated on the fact that Clemson fans truly believed these Tigers had a chance to win.

"Right now we're riding the top of this wave, and coming off the [Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU] is when the anticipation of this game began," said 1994 Clemson grad Lee Safrit, of Greenville, S.C.

"We were talking January 1st, we couldn't wait for football season to start. We were at the bowl game, obviously. That made us all have a different feel about our team and our program and where we've been and where we're going. I'm willing to forget the bad times. Besides losing to South Carolina four years in a row, other than that, I'm not worried about the past. There were about 20 years when I was like, 'I don't what's going to happen.' Now we expect to win."

Swinney is trying to convince the rest of the world to expect the same.

Swinney doesn't want to hear it anymore.

"I'm just tired of the question," he said Monday morning, sounding exasperated in response to a question about the program being able to sustain its success. "People need to ask different questions."

After back-to-back wins against LSU and Georgia, Swinney had an answer -- lots of answers, in fact.

"It's like people hold Clemson to a higher standard," he said. "That's what I don't understand. There were a lot of teams that lost games last year. We lost two games to two top-10 teams [Florida State and South Carolina]. Alabama lost a game, too. People want to talk about things from years ago, and people need to let go of that stuff."

Wait. He's not done …

"You want to talk about sustaining success?" he said. "The last 32 weeks of college football or longer, there's only six teams that have been ranked every single week in the country: Alabama, LSU, Oregon, Stanford, South Carolina and Clemson. You talk about consistency. Well, if that's not sustaining success, I don't know what it is. Where's Texas? Where's Auburn? Where's Georgia? Where's Florida? Where's Florida State? Where's Texas A&M? Where's Michigan? Where's Ohio State? Where's Southern Cal? There are only five other teams that have been as consistent or more as Clemson. We haven't won 'em all, but those other five teams haven't won 'em all, either. It doesn't matter what Clemson seems to do, people always ask the same question. It doesn't matter that ranked SEC teams have only lost eight games to nonconference opponents and four have come against Clemson. Nobody cares about any of that. It's like people are blinded. Our players deserve better than that. That's just the bottom line."

This is not a team that is afraid of losing at NC State. Or at Syracuse. Or at Maryland. Clemson is 15-3 under Swinney as a ranked team against unranked opponents. Ranked Tigers teams have won nine straight games against non-ranked teams.

There was so much energy on campus and in our crowd, you could almost just touch it.

--Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

Don't look now, but Clemson is winning the games it's supposed to win -- and the ones it's not. The Tigers have accounted for four of the eight total wins by nonconference opponents against ranked SEC teams.

Swinney points to statistics and facts to make his case, but there was no greater evidence of the transformation the program has undergone under his watch than the game-day atmosphere in Clemson this past weekend -- and the scoreboard after the game.

Generations of purple and orange-clad Clemson fans swarmed the tiny town, bursting with pride and hope in anticipation of what was arguably one of the biggest games in school history. Older Clemson fans sat in the shade and reminisced about the days when the Clemson-Georgia rivalry was at its best, and national titles were on the line.

Teens and 20-somethings, who talk titles on their Twitter feeds, set up their tents and camped out for a week just to get their tickets in the student section. The sidewalks simply weren't wide enough to accommodate the crowd, nor was the stadium big enough to hold it. And nothing could possibly contain the fans from hurdling the brick wall and spilling out onto the field after the Tigers' win over the Bulldogs. One couple sprinted hand-in-hand onto the field, their faces lit up like middle-schoolers set loose for the summer.

"There was so much energy on campus and in our crowd," Swinney said, "you could almost just touch it."

And this time, it felt different.

Clemson, behind the leadership of Heisman hopeful quarterback Tajh Boyd, had an answer for every Georgia touchdown. The defense, which has been questioned every day since the 2011 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, got a great performance from the line, which sacked quarterback Aaron Murray four times and helped take some pressure off an inexperienced secondary. The deafening roar of the crowd on Clemson's game-winning touchdown was enough to wake up nearby Seneca.

And there were about 118,000 fans outside the stadium who were close enough to hear it but couldn't see it. Many fans watched the game on their flat-screen TVs under tailgate tents, literally just a few feet away from the bright lights of Death Valley.

The anticipation began months ago, but it was tangible a week ago.

"We started seeing it at the beginning of the week," said Safrit, who is also a vice chair for IPTAY, a Clemson fundraising group, in Pickens County. "Flags were flying, people were talking, a lot of 'atta boys' going on around the school. We live just 10 miles from here. Just coming through the small town of Clemson during game week, you could feel a different buzz."

Captain Jeff Stone of the City of Clemson Police Department said the typical home crowd during the season is between 100,000 to 200,000, but that they were expecting between 150,000 to 200,000 for the Georgia game. It felt like a second city had invaded Clemson. The majority of fans had taken up residence in Bowman Field, the site of ESPN's "College GameDay" crew. Students stood on coolers to try to get a better view, kids were hoisted onto their dads' shoulders, and just about everyone had sweat glistening on their foreheads.

"It's huge," Stone said. "I believe this is the biggest game we've had here in town in years, it's definitely bigger than the South Carolina game last year."

Jacquelyn Sutherland, a sophomore from Charleston, S.C., agreed. She was one of about 15 students who took shifts in Tent No. 37 all week, camped out near the stadium, to get their tickets. She said the line of tents weaved halfway around the stadium.

"It was absolutely insane," she said.

"It's just grown completely beyond our wildest imagination to see this much support, this much activity, this much excitement," said Freeman Martin, a 1965 graduate of Clemson and the stadium's former public address announcer for 18 years.

Even the 302-member marching band saw a spike in its numbers, for no other reason than the hype surrounding the team this fall.

"It's the biggest band in Clemson's history," said Dr. Mark Spede, who has been the band director since 2002. "A lot of that has to do with the hype and top-10 ranking and Dabo's success. He's a great leader for the athletic program and football team. We have a great relationship with him. Every time the team is ranked in the top 10, we get a little bump in our numbers."

There was a steady gaggle of fans who stopped to peer through the iron gate at the top of The Hill to see the iconic Howard's Rock, which is now under constant security.

Across campus, fans were staking claim to their tailgate spots as early as 5 a.m. Saturday. For four hours, the "College GameDay" crew entertained a hot, sweaty crowd of dedicated fans. Grown men carried signs that were bigger than they were, and even dogs were dressed in Clemson colors. And yet, the most truly palpable feeling of hope in Death Valley didn't reach its peak until around 6:15 p.m., when Clemson's tradition of the Tiger Walk began. It's a pregame ritual that Swinney started on his first Saturday as head coach and has grown with the success of the program.

With the band booming Tiger Rag from a balcony above, Swinney was leading the line, giving a fist pump and "Let's go!" as he walked into the football building.

It wasn't until the end of the walk that Boyd, decked out in his suit and purple bow tie, finally made it to the end of the line, with star receiver Sammy Watkins one step behind him, smiling in his sunglasses, followed by offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Everyone seemed to stop their tailgates mid-burger and beer and turn to cheer C-L-E-M-S-O-N!

"It was the greatest moment I've ever seen since I've been here," Watkins said.

"It was a whole different feeling," defensive end Corey Crawford said. "It was like my first time again."

For the first time in a long time, the Tigers -- and the ACC -- lived up to the hype.

With that success, of course, only comes increased expectations and anticipation.

On Tuesday morning, Clemson was ranked No. 4 in the country, the school's highest ranking in the Associated Press poll in 25 years. Despite the progress the program has made, even Swinney knows it's a long season and anything can happen.

"Don't bring the trophy around," Swinney said after the game. "All we've done is win one game. Don't write them off, don't crown us."

ACC fans know better than to do that.

This conference has been home to heartbreak. Clemson still has to play Florida State at home. It has to play South Carolina on the road. And -- gasp -- it has to play at Syracuse, an unheralded team with a penchant for toppling ranked teams with high-profile quarterbacks.

The ACC is notorious for getting in its own way (See: Florida State vs. NC State 2012). Who knows? Georgia could beat South Carolina this weekend, go on to win the rest of its games, and have a better chance in the BCS than Clemson.

The Tigers have cleared their first major hurdle, and they have legitimized themselves as a top-five program, but unless they can avenge losses to rivals Florida State and South Carolina -- and steer clear of falling to lesser opponents, the program's Achilles' heel in seasons past -- the program will still have its naysayers.

It's a concept Swinney adamantly disdains, especially as his program basks in the glow of Saturday night's achievement.

If Clemson can sustain its success for 11 more weeks, though, Swinney won't have to hear it anymore.