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January 1, 2013
CLEMSON -- Of all the bowl games in college football these days - and embarrassingly there are now almost three-dozen of them - the one game that boasts the longest ACC vs. SEC matchup is the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Entering Monday night's matchup between No. 13 Clemson (11-2) and No. 7 LSU (10-3), the bowl had seen a split in its 20-year pairings with the ACC taking 10 victories to the SEC's 10.
"The way people talked about it, you would have thought it was like 19-1," said Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd following his team's 25-24 victory.
While both teams had carried 10-win ledgers into New Years Eve, LSU had been called the favorite ever since the matchup was announced, holding steady with a 4-6-point edge by odds-makers.
And Dabo Swinney himself said this of LSU last week: "LSU has been a program that's won 10, 11, 12, 13 games pretty regularly under coach (Les) Miles. They are a great team. We're not a great team ... yet."
Clemson's 11 wins was just the fourth time in school history the feat had been accomplished, and after producing back-to-back 10-win seasons this year for the first time since 1989-1990.
Swinney keeps this up in the coming years and there's likely to be a statue of him somewhere outside Death Valley ... the Death Valley in Upstate, South Carolina.
Make no mistake about it. Clemson's triumph over LSU Monday is a big deal.
Clemson's record against the Southeastern Conference isn't exactly stellar. The program owns an all-time record of 119-168 against SEC opponents.
And in the weeks leading up to Monday night's showdown, Clemson's players grew tired of hearing about the SEC's superiority and the ACC's dubious lot in college football life.
Players grew tired of hearing about how people were calling LSU's brand of football smash-mouth but referred to Clemson as finesse and a team not physical enough and not man enough to beat an SEC West power that was one year removed from playing for a national championship.
Clemson had also dropped its only two matchups versus top 12 opponents in 2012; both double-digit defeats at the hands of Florida State and rival South Carolina.
And in recruiting, over the last several months Clemson has lost ground on some elite prospects, notably Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville (Ga.), a five-star defensive end and the No. 1-rated recruit in the nation who was once committed to Clemson, four-star defensive end Elijah Daniel of Avon (Ind.), also a former Clemson commit the coaching staff cut ties with after his frequent flirtations with other programs and of course four-star wideout Demarcus Robinson of Fort Valley (Ga.), a two-time Clemson commit who's now uncommitted.
The three have something in common in that they're all involved with SEC programs, as Nkemdiche is now a projection to the SEC by many, Daniel will have taken no less than three official visits to SEC programs by National Signing Day and Robinson is strongly considering a final flip to Florida after showing up in San Antonio (Texas) for the US Army All-American game wearing Gators apparel.
Clemson's staff is still involved with Nkemdiche, who is contemplating taking another visit to the Upstate later this month. Clemson loses Malliciah Goodman after Monday's game, leaving the door open for Nkemdiche to compete for a starting job at strongside end as a true freshman.
And one has to figure the Tigers are selling Robinson on the idea of how much more appealing it has to be to catch the football in Memorial Stadium for three years versus blocking in Gainesville for four.
No doubt, Clemson's win over LSU Monday in an unopposed time slot was an instant classic that'll have the attention of the college football world for awhile. It bought the program invaluable exposure and added credibility with pollsters, and quite possibly prospects.
"It speaks volumes for the future of our program and where we're headed," said Boyd. "When ESPN had the bowl announcement, it was like this will be an interesting game but they weren't giving us any opportunity to win this game at all. LSU was much more physical. That hurt us and our pride."
The 11th win likely puts Clemson inside of the top 10 to end the season. And that's important for a squad that returns relatively intact in 2013 where it is expected to debut anywhere from No. 5-No. 10 in preseason polls.
Offensively, Clemson returns starters (LT) Brandon Thomas, (LG) David Beasley, (RG) Tyler Shatley, (RT) Gifford Timothy, (QB) Tajh Boyd, (WR) Sammy Watkins, and coaches are awaiting a decision from rising senior receiver Nuk Hopkins, who finished the 2012 season with over 1,400 yards receiving.
Defensively, the Tigers return starters (DE) Corey Crawford, (DT) Josh Watson, (DT) Grady Jarrett, (LB) Quandon Christian, (LB) Spencer Shuey, (DB) Travis Blanks and (DB) Bashaud Breeland. The Tigers also return starting placekicker Chander Catanzaro.
"We're going to have guys come back with an extra pep in their step," said Josh Watson last week when contemplating the positives of a win. "A win over LSU would prove we would belong. It would show everyone that we've taken a step up as a program, that we've gotten into some thin air."
Added Watson: "A win would put us in the top 10 and we'd be in a position to compete for a national championship if we took care of business."
"This team has set a standard now to go try to win a national championship," said Morris. "The nucleus is there, the belief is there. We've just got to go do it."
Swinney said last week regardless of the outcome, it wouldn't take away from what his team had accomplished throughout the year. The coach also reminded reporters by the time his team began spring practice in March, he'd have a different team on his hands, one that will have already turned the page.
That may be hard to do after last night's win. While coaches routinely train players to quickly flush the last game from their systems, this may be a game Swinney is just fine having his players think about for awhile.
"All offseason and summer people wanted to make sure we were reminded play by play about what happened in the Orange Bowl," said Swinney. "Everybody wants to talk and write about that last one."
The thought here is that as more and more people write about Monday night throughout the upcoming offseason, they'll spend less time lumping Clemson in with the ACC's plight and more time citing reasons why the Tigers now belong on a stage with the big boys of college football.
Said Morris: "We couldn't care less what everybody else thinks about us. We know what we can do and what we believe in. If we execute our system and play to the standard we set for ourselves, we feel like we can beat anybody in the country."
Looks like Clemson may be in a better position to accomplish that objective in 2013.
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