CLEMSON, S.C. -- This change didn’t happen overnight.
In January, offensive coordinator Chad Morris was hired. In February, Clemson signed one of the most talented recruiting classes in the country. In March, an offensive overhaul began. And this past summer, quarterback Tajh Boyd said, some veterans on Clemson’s roster got together and decided this season would be different.
With its 35-30 win over No. 11 Florida State on Saturday, Clemson proved it is.
“We hear Clemson can’t win two games back-to-back, Clemson can’t do this, Clemson can’t do that,” Boyd said. “It’s really fine because we have everything we need in this stadium right here.”
Including back-to-back wins over ranked opponents.
In a span of two weeks, Clemson found ways to beat defending national champ Auburn, and a Florida State team that was lauded by many as a national title contender for 2011. For Clemson, a program widely regarded as one of the most inconsistent in the country, its 4-0 start proves the Tigers are capable of consistency. After all, it’s only the second time in 23 years that Clemson has defeated Top 25 teams on back-to-back weekends and the first time they’ve done it at home. More importantly for the Tigers, though, Saturday’s win came against a Florida State team heavily favored to win the Atlantic Division.
If you thought Florida State was “back,” you might want to reconsider.
“We’re back,” said Clemson offensive lineman Dalton Freeman. “A lot of people have been doubting us and saying it’s the same old team. In the past we’ve been very inconsistent, but a lot of things have changed and we’re just hoping to keep the ball rolling. ... We’re just clicking right now. If we can keep it rolling and continue to get better, we have a chance to be pretty special.”
Now, as Clemson prepares to travel to Virginia Tech for its first road test of the season, it does so undefeated, with confidence, and with an early lead in the Atlantic Division race. While it’s still very early in the conference schedule, Clemson’s chances at returning to the ACC title game for the first time since 2009 look even better considering how Atlantic Division opponents Maryland, NC State and Boston College have struggled this month.
“The biggest thing, it’s not 4-0, it’s the first ACC game,” defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “In this league, if you don’t win that first one, it puts you behind the eight-ball. In that regard, it helps us to win that first one, because it makes it difficult if you don’t. Somebody else is driving when that happens, particularly when it’s a divisional game.”
All of the hype in the ACC this past offseason belonged to Florida State -- in retrospect, probably a year too early. The Seminoles, whose misfortune with injuries to key players continued against the Tigers, struggled to run the ball and sustain drives against Clemson. They couldn't key in on any one playmaker for the Tigers, as eight different players caught passes and four different players scored.
Florida State was just 3-of-10 on third-down conversions, was only in the red zone twice, and had just 29 rushing yards -- its fewest against Clemson since 2003. The Seminoles’ defense, which entered the game allowing an average of only 11 points, was gashed for 455 yards. It was the first time Clemson ever passed for more than 300 yards against Florida State. The up-tempo offense under Morris cranked out 33 more plays than Florida State and had the ball almost 10 minutes longer.
If there were any questions about whether or not Morris was a good hire, the output against the Noles should answer them.
“There’s a lot of teams with talent that don’t win,” Morris said. “It’s about guys buying into what you’re doing. There’s nothing more common in this world than unsuccessful people with talent. We’ve got the talent, and we’ve got the scheme, and these guys are believing. It’s like a puzzle -- it fits together.”
Talent has never been the problem at Clemson. Whatever was missing, the Tigers seem to have found it in the past two games, though nobody can pinpoint it.
“There’s something different here at Clemson, man,” said Rennie Moore, whose sack on FSU backup quarterback Clint Trickett helped seal the win for Clemson. “I know everyone feels it. I’m proud of my team, man, I’m proud of the coaching staff, I’m proud of Clemson. We’re 4-0, we’re in the driver’s seat, it’s time to keep doing what we’re doing, man.”
Despite Clemson’s win over Auburn in Week 3, doubts about Clemson’s No. 21 ranking in the Associated Press still remained, as critics pointed out Auburn’s abysmal defense. Coupled together with the win over Florida State, though, Clemson validated the offseason changes both on and off the field.
Still, Boyd isn’t holding his breath that Clemson has made a believer out of everyone just yet.
“There’s never going to be a point where you silence everybody, and that’s fine,” Boyd said. “We really do feed off that. It is what it is. We believe in ourselves as a team and a unit.”
And so far, they’ve gotten everything they needed out of Death Valley.