My first Clemson experience came as a Missouri fan in September 2000. My Tigers were visiting theirs for the second leg of a home-and-home, and in Larry Smith's final season as Mizzou's head coach, he had a capable team always coming up short.
The game was only memorable for how quickly things went from "capable" to "coming up short." Missouri trailed 14-9 late in the first half before Woody Dantzler hit Rod Gardner for a 38-yard score on fourth down ... and five minutes later, it was 42-9. It ended up 62-9.
Our tickets were so high in the vertical stands that, when my friends and I decided to ask God why he had forsaken us, all we had to do was turn around and tap him on the shoulder.
Clemson's Death Valley held 43,000 in the late-1970s, 63,000 in the early-1980s and 81,000 in the early-1990s. The Tigers were pretty good in the 1940s and 1950s -- six bowls in 12 years, including two Orange Bowl trips and two undefeated campaigns -- but were relative afterthoughts. Going 11-0 and winning the Gator Bowl in 1948 garnered them only a No. 11 final ranking. They had never topped 10th in the final polls until 1978's 11-1.
In college football's glacial terms, Clemson went from afterthought to power program in the blink of an eye. But until Dabo Swinney, the Tigers were mostly known for hints of greatness followed by swaths of disappointment. They reached fifth in the polls heading into November of that 2000 season, but got upset at home by unranked Georgia Tech, then got wiped off the map by Florida State, 54-7.
The idea of "Clemsoning" was always mean, but it held just enough truth to become a full-fledged meme, which Swinney lashed out at on Saturday.
But in about the same time it took for the Tigers to move from 1970s minnow to 1981 national champion, Clemson has turned into one of football's safest bets.
They went 32-7 from 2012-14, with three top-15 finishes (the first time they did that consecutively since 1988-90) and marquee bowl wins over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma. And despite wholesale turnover in the trenches, Clemson enters mid-October with perhaps the most complete team in the country.
Because they started near the back, Clemson has only advanced to fifth in the AP Poll and sixth in the Coaches. They have a combined one first place vote, 74 fewer than an Ohio State that has proved very little beyond being the guys who won the title last year.
But if the Playoff committee began its work today, the Tigers might be No. 1. They would almost certainly have a spot in the top four.
The Tigers have checked every box so far. They walloped a solid mid-major, Appalachian State. They survived a tricky Thursday-night conference road game against a still-solid Louisville. They overcame rain and a relentless Notre Dame comeback attempt in Week 4's marquee battle.
Perhaps most impressively, they survived a hangover threat. Against a Georgia Tech better than its record (before Saturday, anyway), Clemson outgained the Yellow Jackets by a 537-230 margin, destroying the Tech option attack, jumping out to a 33-10 halftime lead, and cruising to 40-10 before a fumble recovery touchdown and garbage-time drive.
Before a marquee visit from Florida State on Nov. 7, the Tigers will have to face an elite defense (Boston College) and far-from-gimme trips to Miami and NC State. An excellent team could slip up. Excellent teams have been slipping up in such games all year. But through six weeks of the 2015 season, Clemson is one of the most proven entities.
How have the Tigers become college football's steadiest team this fall?
Clemson had the nastiest defensive line in college football last year. The Tigers ranked second in Adj. Line Yards, second in Adj. Sack Rate and first in Havoc Rate. Seven Tigers made at least eight tackles for loss, and five defensed at least five passes.
Almost every single difference-maker left. Clemson returned only one of last year's top eight tacklers on the line, lost its top two linebackers and had to replace a playmaker in cornerback Garry Peters. Swinney has recruited well, and it wasn't like coordinator Brent Venables was going to forget how to coach. Still, at setback was nearly guaranteed.
Technically, there has been a setback. After all that, Clemson has fallen all the way from second in Def. S&P+ to ... sixth. The Tigers are again first in Havoc Rate and second in Adj. Line Yards, 19th in Adj. Sack Rate. In the absence of so many stars, Venables has attacked from even more directions, and the athletes at hand have made it work. Seven Tigers have at least three tackles for loss, and four have defensed at least two passes. And in the absence of quite as much depth up front, the secondary has stepped up.
Safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse have combined for 8.5 tackles for loss and four passes defensed, and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley has 1.5 and five. With a load of juniors and seniors stepping up in the back seven and ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd (combined: 16.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks) creating chaos, Clemson remains one of the most disruptive defenses. You cannot run on the Tigers, which means you are forced to throw on this active secondary and risk getting your quarterback lit up.
The loss of star receiver Mike Williams to injury in the season opener was a serious blow for Clemson's explosiveness. Williams averaged more than 18 yards per catch in a breakout sophomore campaign, and despite turnover on the line (four of five starters gone) he was going to ensure that star quarterback Deshaun Watson had one major weapon.
Without Williams, and with a line that has been decent, Clemson has had to lean on Watson's efficiency. Despite a shaky game in the rain against Notre Dame, Watson is completing 69 percent of his passes. He has produced a passer rating of at least 134 in four of five games and at least 159 in three. Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud have sacrificed downfield explosions for sideline passes and have combined to catch 47 of 57 balls.
The top seven wideouts have combined for a 77 percent catch rate. Big-play rates have been rather mediocre -- 46 passes of 10-plus yards (75th in FBS) and eight of 30-plus (59th) -- but Clemson is keeping Watson upright and working the ball down the field. Watson's legs remain an occasional weapon, and Wayne Gallman has rushed for at least 111 yards in three consecutive games.
Two big tests are coming. Week 7 opponent Boston College currently ranks third in Def. S&P+, and Florida State ranks 12th. Efficiency is the most important quality for a defense, but big plays are your bailout, and neither allows many of those.
On two separate occasions, circumstance has given Clemson a reason to tighten up. Against Louisville, the Tigers outgained their road opponent by 129 yards and eased to a 10-point advantage in the fourth quarter. But Traveon Samuel's 100-yard kickoff return kept Louisville close, and the Cardinals got two chances to tie or take the lead. On the first, Carlos Watkins' sack forced a longer field goal, pulled wide. On the second, Jadar Johnson picked off a pass near the end zone as time expired.
Against Notre Dame, Clemson took a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter on a sloppy track, but a strong Irish team began to make plays. B.J. Goodson picked off DeShone Kizer with seven minutes left, then Jayron Kearse stripped Chris Brown of the ball near the goal line with two minutes left. When Notre Dame got the ball back one last time and scored to make it 24-22 with seconds remaining, Ben Boulware stuffed Kizer on the two-point attempt to seal the victory.
That Clemson flirted with blowing two double-digit leads tells you the Tigers are far from a sure thing. The offense struggled to run out the clock in both games, and the defense figured out ways to let opponents move the ball late. But in a season defined by big comebacks and surprising letdowns, Clemson remained dialed in and made the plays. And to make the Playoff, they'll probably have to do so again.
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With Watson, Clemson is a Tier 1 team in the ACC. Without Watson, Clemson might fall behind Florida State, Louisville, Virginia Tech and Miami at least.
With Watson, the schedule sets up beautifully. Clemson faces three projected top-20 teams, but all three come to Death Valley, and while trips to Louisville, Miami, South Carolina and perhaps NC State could be quite tricky, Clemson could be favored in every game. Without Watson, 6-6 is on the table.
I just didn't know what to think of Clemson heading into the season. And there's still reason to be concerned about the next month. Depth is perilous in a few key positions beyond the most obvious (QB), and while you like to see that a team can perform in the clutch, the best teams tend to be the ones that put away games earlier.
Thus far, the teams atop the 2015 F/+ rankings are the ones with the fewest weak spots. Texas Tech and Baylor have ridiculous offenses but defenses with plenty left to prove. Northwestern and Duke are putting their best-ever defenses on the field, but with wholly mediocre offenses. But Clemson has positioned itself as one of football's best teams by simply avoiding major weaknesses and producing quality on defense despite turnover.
Clemson is athletic and battle-tested, and if they can stay semi-healthy and find more big plays, the Tigers might be as well-positioned as anybody to make the Playoff.