ACC Football Top 12 Games of 2012: The Curse and Auburn Team Up Against Clemson

Demons.

Whether you believe in them or not, they are real.

They have to be.

Just ask any Clemson Tigers football fan and they will tell you of every heartbreaking story of when a victory was in hand only to have it stolen.

This legend of the curse is why the Auburn Tigers battle against Clemson on Saturday, September 1, at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta, Georgia is our No. 2 contest in the Top 12 Must See ACC Football Games of 2012.

But before the Clemson faithful can exorcise its demons, we have to establish when the door to the dark side was opened for all of Hell to unleash its mischief and sorrow on Death Valley.

And that day was September 22, 1984, in Athens, Georgia.

The second-ranked Tigers held a 20-6 lead at the half  and looked poised to embarrass the rival Georgia Bulldogs on their home field. All of a sudden in the third, a Bulldog score here and a few Kevin Butler field-goals later, Georgia held a 23-20 lead. Clemson rebounded with a 12-play, 48-yard drive that ended with a 48-yard field-goal to tie the contest at 23 all with a little under two minutes to go.

Georgia took the ball on their own 20 and managed to make it just into Clemson territory with seconds left. That’s when Georgia Head Coach Vince Dooley ran out Butler for a 60-yard attempt as time expired.

I’ll let Larry Munson, the late, great legendary voice of the “Dawgs”, tell the rest of the story…

 “So we’ll try to kick one 100,000 miles,” Munson  said. “We’re holding it on our own 49 and a half, gonna try to kick it 60 yards plus a foot and a half… Butler kicked a long one… a long one…. Oh, my God! Oh, my God! The stadium is worse than bonkers. . . . I can’t believe what he did!”

And just like that, as Tigers Head Coach Danny Ford sat squatting, looking down with his hat off, the Curse of Clemson was born.

Take your pick on what game you want to discuss in regards to the curse over the pat 30 years. The “puntrooski” by Florida State Seminoles and Deion Sanders in 1988. The penalties in 1990 against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets that cost Clemson the ACC Crown and opened the door for a National Title for Tech. Blowing a 14-3 lead and losing to the top ranked Seminoles 17-14 in 1999. The missed extra-point in a 34-33 loss to Boston College Eagles in 2006. The blow-up that was the loss to eventual National Champion Auburn in 2010 27-24. Capped off by the 70-33 destruction by West Virginia Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl just a few months ago.

And that brings us to today. Just a mere 11 days away from the “Battle of the Tigers” in Atlanta; curse and all.

Clemson enters with seven returning starters on offense led by junior QB Tajh Boyd who led the ACC in passing offense in 2011. Boyd who tossed for 33 touchdowns and over 4,000 last season, has his favorite targets in junior WR DeAndre Hopkins,  senior WR Jaron Brown and senior RB Andre Ellington. Missing for this game will be sophomore all-everything WR Sammy Watkins due to his little run in with police this summer.  Fellow sophomore Adam Humphries will fill Watkins’ shoes for the night. But don’t expect Tigers Head Coach Dabo Swinney to miss his sophomore playmaker.

“We were at out best last year when we had a lot of people involved on offense,” Swinney said at ACC Media Days in July. “We struggled when we tried to force things to one player that was not there. When we did that we had turnovers and forced ourselves in to a lot of three-and-outs.”

The Tigers return seven starters on defense as well, but the difference of this game and its season will be how the players respond to new Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables. Venables was hired what seemed like hours after the Orange Bowl debacle to bring his touted philosophy to Clemson.

“The big thing with us last year was giving up too many big plays and we didn’t tackle very well,” says Swinney. “Now those guys are a year older and a year more experienced. Some of what Brent has brought with him from Oklahoma (Sooners) will help us.”

Leading the charge for Venables will a strong group of linebackers in senior Corico Hawkins, senior Tig Willard, junior Quandon Christian, sophomore Stephone Anthony, sophomore Tony Steward and sophomore Lateek Towsend.  On the back end you also have a lot of experience in senior CB Xavier Brewer, senior SS Jonathan Meeks, senior FS Rashard Hall and sophomore CB Bashaud Breeland.

But the question mark is on the defensive front as Clemson looks to replace the entire crew.

“It all starts up there, so our focus will be up front immediately,” Venables said. “You’ve got to physically win at the line of scrimmage. If you’re not winning up front, it’s hard to be good on a consistent basis.”

All eyes will be on senior DE Malliciah Goodman, freshman DE Shaq Lawson, sophomore DT DeShawn Williams, sophomore DT Grady Jarret, sophomore DT Tavaris Barnes, freshman DT Carlos Watkins, sophomore DE Corey Crawford and sophomore DE Vic Beasley. Two or six of these guys have to step up quickly against its SEC foe in game one.

To make the Clemson Curse even more fun is the fact Auburn brings in an experienced defense and an capable offense that scored 82% of its points last season. Add that to Head Coach Gene Chizik‘s no fear, nothing upsets me and my plan attitude and the stage is set for quite a battle.

But there are a few compelling questions for Aburn.

The Tigers will have a revamped look, with new Offensive Coordinator Scot Loeffler scrapping the spread for a traditional two-back offense and first-year Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder implementing a pro-style, attacking defense.

“The changes are going to make us stronger and we’re going to go back and play more physical football on both sides of the ball,” said Chizik. “We’re young. Seventy percent of our roster will be freshmen and sophomores. But when this team grows up,and it could be in a month, could be in a year, we’ll be good. Our future is bright.”

Loeffler has concerns in regards to who will step up between sophomore QB Kiehl Frazier and junior QB Clint Moseley to take the reigns of the new offense. Can senior RB Onterio McCalebb carry the weight as the featured running back. Can sophomore RB Tre Mason fill the shoes left by the departure of Michael Dyer.

The one key to this game and its season will be the play of senior WR Emory Blake and TE Philip Lutzenkirchen. Nothing can settle an offense like a future NFL TE or a crafty experienced receiver in a vertical offense.

VanGorder has much less concern on the defensive side of the ball. Nine starters return to the unit, including All-SEC junior DE Corey Lemonier who collected 9.5 sacks in 2011. Lemonier along with junior LB Daren Bates, junior DE Nosa Eguae and sophomore CB Robenson Therezie will thrive in this attacking and risk taking environment.

So the stage is set in the battle of the Tigers in Atlanta to open the season.

Another SEC power just 18-months removed from a BCS National Championship with a coach that is not afraid of anything; with a bunch of players with nothing to lose.

Against…

The defending ACC Champion who enters the game with the explosiveness on both sides of the ball to compete for another BCS game.

But, then there are those dreaded demons…

And if the North Carolina State Wolfpack can’t come through with a win on Friday, they will no doubt be flying all around Clemson on Saturday in Atlanta.

Look for Clemson to play the football it knows best. The Tigers will jump up early on Auburn, get settled in the third and have to hold on for dear life in the final minutes. It will be compelling football watching Clemson burn its energy battling itself and those demons more so than its opponent on the field.

But in the end, Boyd and Ellington will simply be too much on offense and a surprise late touchdown by senior TE Brandon Ford will give Clemson a 40-31 victory over Auburn.

The Clemson Curse may not be vaporized with a win, but it will at least take a rest for game one and potentially give the ACC a much needed 2-0 start to the season against the standard of college football excellence in the SEC.

Next up: Game 3 of the Top 12 Must See ACC Football Games of 2012 – Georgia Tech versus Virginia Tech Hokies.

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M. Shannon Smallwood has over 10 years experience in sports journalism and broadcasting and covers ACC Football for Rant Sports.

@woodysmalls

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