While Florida State has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, division rival Clemson has gone about its business without much fanfare or attention. You could even say the preseason favorites in the ACC have all of a sudden become an under-the-radar team.
But the spotlight will be shining on Clemson starting Thursday night against Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2), as the Tigers (8-1, 6-1) try to remain in contention for an at-large BCS bid. Their final two FBS games of the season are high on the difficulty scale. The Jackets have historically given the Tigers all sorts of problems. Then the regular-season finale against bitter rival South Carolina could potentially give Clemson its third top-10 matchup this season.
There is little doubt Clemson is in good position to get a BCS berth, sitting at No. 8 in the latest BCS standings. If Florida State ends up playing for a national championship and Clemson finishes with at least 10 wins, the Tigers would be a prohibitive favorite to get an at-large spot in the Orange Bowl. Several projections have Oregon as their opponent, which would create one of the more intriguing BCS matchups of the season.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney would disapprove of all the look-ahead talk, but everybody inside the program knows what is at stake with a strong finish to the season. Keep in mind the Tigers have been ranked in the top 10 for 12 straight polls, the longest streak in Clemson history. It is currently the fourth-longest streak in the FBS, behind Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State.
"There’s a lot of opportunity for this team," Swinney said in a recent phone interview. "There has never been a team in the history of this school to start in the top 10 and stay in the top 10 all year. There’s so much for them to focus on and things that they control. When it’s all said and done, you look up and we’ll see where the cards fall. We’ve got a chance to have one of the best seasons in the history of this school if we can stay focused and continue to win."
Clemson deserves credit for staying focused after an embarrassing 51-14 home loss to Florida State, a loss that essentially flipped the scripts for the Tigers and the Noles. Florida State went on to clinch a spot in the ACC championship game. Clemson was left to pick up the pieces, knowing full well its ACC and national championship hopes were all but over with five regular-season games left to play.
But Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford said he and his teammates refused to let that one loss define their season. As a point of reference, he mentions the 2011 season and Clemson's game against these very Jackets. The Tigers went into that game unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country. They proceeded to lose 31-17, then dropped three of their final five games, including a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl.
"We don’t want to go back down that route," Crawford said. "We want to stay focused, get ready for Georgia Tech, and not think about anything else. I feel what happened with us in 2011, we were the big dogs, we were unstoppable and whatnot, but now we realize everybody that plays us wants to get a piece of Clemson and wants to take Clemson down, especially in the ACC since we became one of the big, prominent teams. We’re going to get everyone’s best and we’re going to have to come out and give our best and just play ball."
Clemson might ultimately be judged on its performances against Florida State and South Carolina when the 2013 season comes to a close. But there really is plenty at stake. Not only is there BCS talk, but the Tigers also have a chance to post three straight 10-win seasons for the first time since a four-year streak from 1987-90.
"There’s only going to be one team that wins the national championship, but ultimately, you want to be the best you can be every year," Swinney said. "That’s the mentality we have on and off the field. We can’t be 12-0, but hey, what are we going to end up? Can we be 11-1? Can we be 10-2? Is it 9-3? What’s our best? I don’t know. But every opportunity we have to play, we have to put our best foot forward. There’s been a lot of consistency with these guys, and the only reason we’ve been able to have that type of consistency is because of that mentality that these guys have. I'm proud of the guys for how they've responded."