The Clemson Tigers, ranked No. 8 in the nation, will kick off the season against the Georgia Bulldogs while being tabbed as legitimate national title contenders thanks in no small part to the exploits of quarterback Tajh Boyd and offensive coordinator Chad Morris‘ fast paced spread offense. In his fifth year as head coach, Dabo Swinney has changed the culture of the football program that many did not expect from the former receivers coach.
But for all the talk of defenses, secondaries, and running backs, the biggest challenge for Swinney’s team in 2013 will ultimately be shedding the “Clemsoning” label, which has managed to stick around despite the end of the Tommy Bowden era.
Expectations for this team are high following their 25-24 victory against LSU in the Chick-Fil-A bowl. While they lose valuable offensive commodities in DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Ellington, and Dalton Freeman, they return four starters along the offensive line and two All-Americans in quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins. But many of the pundits will continually point back to when Clemson was expected to do big things only to fall well short of expectations. Under Swinney, however, this has become a different Clemson team. It is one that has steadily become a physically and mentally tougher team that has changed the culture of Clemson football, which enters 2013 as the college football team with arguably the biggest chip on its shoulder.
The term ‘Clemsoning’ remains an unwanted label that Dabo Swinney is slowly but surely beginning to shed. As the season opener looms, there are sure to be flashbacks to 2008 when the Tigers entered the season ranked in the top ten and opened the season against a largely unknown Alabama team in Nick Saban‘s second season. The end result was a 34-10 beating by the Crimson Tide in which the Tigers’ lone touchdown was a kickoff return by CJ Spiller. Tommy Bowden would then resign mid-season, and the Tigers would end up 7-5 and taking a huge gamble by promoting its then interim head coach to full time head coach.
And in 2011, the Tigers got off to a hot 8-1 start only to lose the remaining three of their last four regular season games. Sure, they would win the ACC Championship Game handily, but they faltered on the BCS Orange Bowl stage against West Virginia‘s Air Raid 70-33 after never being able to recover from a 99-yard fumble return . Yep, just another Clemsoning that everybody was expecting.
But 2012 seemed different somehow, and not just because Tajh Boyd slimmed down and became more elusive as a runner or because a stud receiver named Sammy Watkins became the best Clemson highlight reel since CJ Spiller. It was because the team never got rattled in games where they got down, and they had no upset losses. Their two losses came to legitimate teams that had to fight through every quarter for it. And when Clemson got matched up against LSU, many thought Clemson would replicate its performance against South Carolina when they played an LSU defense laden with NFL talent. But Clemson proved several things in their victory over the Bayou Tigers: Their offense can be physical and produce against a stout defense, and that the mental makeup of this team is heading in the right direction.
And as the Tigers prepare to host the Georgia Bulldogs in Death Valley with well over 83,000 on hand, you can expect a different Clemson team. The culture of Clemson football has changed, and if the coaches and players have anything to say about it, that culture is here to stay.