The difference between good and great
CLEMSON -- Five years ago, almost everyone outside of Clemson's football program was assuming a 1-2 start.
A trip to Georgia in the opener, and then a visit to the Florida State monster in Game 3.
While most fans and media were thinking there was an outside shot at stealing one in Athens and splitting the two, Dabo Swinney had a zany idea:
Why not win them both?
History will show they didn't win them both or even split them. Georgia took over in the second half and pounded a Clemson defense that was on the field way too long. Florida State won 23-17 in overtime, and the Tigers began with the 1-2 record that conventional wisdom dictated.
But there was nonetheless a shift on that trip to Tallahassee that everyone could feel. Not just from Deshaun Watson taking the starting job and doing masterful things as a first-year freshman, but also from a third-year defensive coordinator who was putting it all together.
That snapshot from 2014 is useful today as we're reflecting on Swinney and Brent Venables having closed the book -- and the door -- on the yearly wars with Jimbo Fisher.
They have won five straight over him, the last two against Texas A&M and the previous three over Florida State, in a streak that maybe not even the head coach would've forecast back on a devastating evening in 2013.
The two programs — and coaches — seemed worlds apart as Florida State administered a 51-14 reality check in Death Valley.
In 2012, Venables' first year, Clemson allowed 667 yards and 49 points in Tallahassee. Now Jameis Winston and the Seminoles were doing it big in amassing 565 yards on the Tigers in a scorched-earth run to the BCS title.
So Venables had made plenty of improvements in his first two seasons after he came in amid the wreckage of that Orange Bowl 70-spot against West Virginia in the last game under Kevin Steele.
But there was still plenty for him and Clemson to ... ahem ... get fixed. But still, that hulking obstacle in Tallahassee, a program that had rediscovered its terrifying ways under Fisher.
That context is important if you're trying to fully appreciate Clemson's utter suffocation of Fisher's high-powered offense in Death Valley on Saturday.
In a previous era, a rebuilding defense is just hanging on for dear life. In this era, a reloading defense forces the issue with supreme (if young) talent and preparation.
Fisher was talking after the game about the separation between good and great. He was saying he knows he has a good team, but a great one makes the plays that are there to be made.
He believed, justifiably, that things could've been different had A&M delivered a dagger on the second play with a long touchdown pass. The receiver had slipped behind center-field safety Isaiah Simmons, and if Kellen Mond hits him it's probably a touchdown. It's probably a major psychological blow to a defense that's trying to find its way this early in the APR Era (After Power Rangers).
Mond, no doubt juiced up in the charged environment, overshot him. Those are the plays you have to make to have a chance against this crew, on its home field, on months of preparation by a defensive coordinator that had a lot to go on this time after having very little to go on a year ago in College Station.
Much of the conversation entering this game centered on the fits Fisher has given Venables over the years.
While the storyline was valid, it's not as though Venables hadn't given his counterpart his own problems over the previous five meetings.
The Seminoles got 17 in regulation on Clemson back in 2014, 13 in Clemson in 2015, 34 in 2016, and 14 in 2017.
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A year ago, a few dropped interceptions were the difference between a Clemson romp and a 28-26 stress fest.
Now Fisher has to keep his starters in at the end just to get to the end zone for the first time.
Swinney and Venables played a role in chasing Fisher away from his post in Tallahassee, frustrated when he looked at Clemson's lavish facilities and couldn't get the same buy-in from his administration.
So that has to be a part of this story, too. Now he's chased back to College Station after a resounding lesson on the difference between good and great.
Fisher's team was imparting those lessons five years ago as Swinney agonized over the missed plays in Tallahassee.
Now it's Swinney and Venables as the teachers, and Fisher as the guy who's hoping his most recent trip to Clemson is his last one.
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