Clemson still impossible to predict

Clemson football has earned a reputation for its ability to surprise us -- not only by losing the games it’s expected to win (see: NC State), but also by winning the games it’s expected to lose (see: ACC championship game).

With a month off between the title game and the Discover Orange Bowl, it becomes even more difficult to predict which Clemson team will show up in Miami -- the one that finished the regular season having lost three of the final four games, or the one that beat the Hokies soundly for the second time this year. As the Tigers prepare to face West Virginia in what will be the program’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl in 30 years, they do so expecting to play the same way they did in the ACC championship game, if not better.

“Our coaches practice real hard, and we know what we have on both sides of the ball, and on special teams,” defensive end Andre Branch said. “We just showed everyone what we’re capable of doing if we put all aspects of the game together. Momentum, yeah, we can keep that going, but we’re pretty much just showing the world that this is Clemson football. We had a couple of lapses that threw us off, but the Virginia Tech game showed everybody what we’re capable of doing when we play a solid game.”

Both Virginia Tech games did, actually. The Tigers beat a top-10 Hokies squad twice by a combined 48 points. After an 8-0 start that had Clemson ranked as high as No. 5 in the BCS standings, coach Dabo Swinney said somewhere along the line, the players lost accountability, and 12 turnovers in four games (three of which were losses) snowballed into a loss of confidence and the players began to force things.

“Thankfully we kind of flushed all of that out of our system,” he said. “We finished the regular season and said, ‘Ok, now it’s time for the postseason.’ We got focused on Virginia Tech and were able to put our best game of the year together. It’s never too late to do what’s right. Hopefully we can have that same type of showing on January 4.”

The Tigers will need it, especially against a high-powered offense that is similar to theirs. Both teams average at least 33 points per game and over 440 yards per game. Both quarterbacks are among the best in the nation in terms of passing efficiency and total offense. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd is 18th in total offense yards per game with a school-record total, while West Virginia’s Geno Smith is ninth in the nation in total offense.

Two of the top four all-purpose players in the nation will also be featured in the Orange Bowl. West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin is second in the nation in all-purpose yards with 191.2 per game, and Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is fourth with 173 yards per game. Both players are also in the top 25 in the nation in receptions per game and kickoff returns.

NC State, though, found a way to hold the Tigers to just 13 points in a surprising 37-13 upset of then-No. 7 Clemson. The Tigers didn’t help themselves with four turnovers, including two second-quarter fumbles deep in their own territory that led to 10 quick points.

“I wish we were 13-0, we’re not, but we didn’t handle the success very well,” Swinney said. “Part of it, too, is we had a lot of young players who hit some mental and physical burnout somewhere along the way. That’s all part of it. It’s just part of learning and growing and understanding what it takes to be the best.”

Understanding Clemson, though, can be a bit tricky.