Clemson leaves no doubt in Atlantic Division

CLEMSON, S.C. -- They were watching the Boston College-North Carolina game in their hotel rooms. They were checking the score on their cell phones on the way to Memorial Stadium.

And in Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s pregame speech, he informed the Tigers that Boston College had lost, in turn making the Tigers this year’s Atlantic Division champs before they even set foot on the field.

AP Photo/Richard Shiro

Clemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford's career-high 211 all-purpose yards led the Tigers to a victory over Virginia.

But Saturday was about Clemson -- about avoiding yet another embarrassing letdown when the Atlantic Division was in the palm of their hands, about proving all of the doubters wrong, and about earning their first appearance in the ACC championship game -- not having BC hand it to them.

“We wanted to win it the real way,” said senior wide receiver Jacoby Ford, who did his part in making that happen with a career-high 211 all-purpose yards in the Tigers’ 34-21 win over Virginia.

“We wanted to win it outright,” said offensive guard Thomas Austin. “We didn’t want it to come to a tiebreaker. That’s what championship teams do.”

Now, for the first time since 1991, Clemson has a chance to be a championship team again. Clemson will meet Coastal Division winner Georgia Tech at 8 p.m. on Dec. 5 ACC championship game. The Tigers did it with a group effort on offense, and with adjustments in the second half on defense. They did it on a senior day that bid farewell to some of the program’s most accomplished players. They did it with a first-year coach who just turned 40 on Friday, a 30-year-old first-year offensive coordinator, and a redshirt freshman quarterback.

Sometimes, though, change is good.

“Our first goal was to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division, and we did that,” said Swinney, who received a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the crowd with about three minutes left in the game. “Our next goal is to win a state championship against South Carolina next weekend. Our third goal is to win the ACC championship game. Our fourth goal is to win a bowl game. We’re happy today, but we’re not done yet.”

They can finally exhale, though.

After watching the Atlantic Division title slip away in 2005, 2006 and 2007, despite being in position to win it, even some of Clemson’s most loyal fans had lingering concerns heading into Saturday’s game against Virginia. Clemson did little to assuage those fears in the first half, holding a precarious 24-21 edge over a Virginia team that entered with a 3-7 record and hadn’t won a game since mid-October. Those 21 points were more than UVa had scored in each of its previous four games. The Cavaliers surprised Clemson with a lot of gimmick plays in the first half, but ran out of them in a scoreless second half.

“We got in at halftime and made some adjustments,” said first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. “There were some technical things we needed to help them on, some calls, so we dusted off a few calls and gave it to them.”

Kavell Conner finished with a career-high 15 tackles, and the defense finished with seven sacks for 54 yards. It was a pedestrian performance for C.J. Spiller’s Heisman hopes -- he set the ACC single-season record for all-purpose yards, but finished with 58 rushing yards and one touchdown. Still, he got what he came back for -- the division title.

“I think people were still on the edge of their seats,” Spiller said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of people probably still doubted us, that we would have a letdown, but the good thing about this team, we never worry about what people say about our team. We worry about what we can control and the main thing for us is having a great week of preparation and going out and proving everyone wrong.”

That seemed to be the theme on Saturday -- quite a change from the program’s previous disappointments.

“It feels good to prove people wrong,” said Ford. “Can Clemson do it? Obviously yes, we can.”