‘May the best man win:’ Clemson has to prove itself again in top-5 showdown
CLEMSON – Before the curtain was raised on the 2013 college football season, 120 reporters projected how the ACC standings would shake out at the league’s kickoff event in July.
A whopping 102 votes were cast for Clemson to win the Atlantic Division, and the remaining 18 were set aside for defending league champion Florida State.
“We like that. We like that,” FSU senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner insisted. “Good luck to them, because that’s a lot of pressure. When you’re the favorite, the only thing you can do is go down. When you’re on top like that and you’ve got everybody on your side, you’ve got to endure, and find some motivation.”
What it meant, in theory, is 85 percent of the media believed before the season Clemson would beat Florida State when the teams met at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 19, and hold serve the rest of the way for a division crown.
Sound reasoning; Clemson was the host, Clemson had the preseason ACC player of the year, Clemson has won five straight over FSU on its home field.
Since those votes were cast, No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 4-0 ACC) has done little, if any, to discredit that summer hype. It outlasted Georgia in a top-ten opening clash, it blew away Wake Forest and Syracuse, and shrugged off slow starts against North Carolina State and Boston College, outscoring those foes 34-14 in the second halves to finish strong.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, the king of the preseason, is the nation’s eighth-rated passer, further justifying Clemson’s development as a national title contender.
So despite all of that, why are the Seminoles a three-point favorite, the same way Georgia was?
Because No. 5 Florida State (5-0, 3-0) has the second-rated passer, redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. He’s as efficient with a football as he is confident with his words.
“Our team motto is, if we play our game, we don’t think that we can be beat,” Winston said this week. “If we do everything — alignment, assignment, technique — if we think we do every single thing to perfection, we know we’re going to have a good chance of winning that game. We know Clemson’s got a great team. So this can be a game where talent and discipline’s going to come out, because we both have great athletes.”
Through little fault of its own, Clemson’s been doubted to take care of business in the building where it’s won 20 consecutive games (and 26 of 27) against teams other than South Carolina.
“It seems like every time we play one of those major top-10 opponents, we’re an underdog,” Boyd said. “It’s not really disrespect or anything like that. It’s just people’s perception, what they think. It’s up to us to go out there and change what they think.”
Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney notoriously ignores national rankings and betting spreads, and didn’t change his approach for this particular challenge.
“This is a toss-up, if you ask me. This is a game that comes down to a few plays,” Swinney said. “Those cats, they got to make plays. You don’t win games if your playmakers don’t make plays.”
The first matchup of top-five foes ever hosted in the state of South Carolina, Clemson welcomes back ESPN’s College GameDay for the second time in 2013 (and third time ever); the first time the popular studio show has ever broadcast from the same site twice in the opening eight weeks of a season.
Clemson is also attempting to set a Guinness World Record for Loudest Crowd Roar on its first defensive snap. It’s all part of the pageantry expected Saturday night.
“I don’t take that for granted, because you work so hard, and you show up on game day when it means something and you get off that bus and you’ve got people lined up and they’re excited about watching your team play,” Swinney said. “Nobody does it better than Clemson. I mean, nobody. This place is second to none.”
Winston dismissed the fact that Florida State has come away empty from Clemson since 2001 — “I didn’t even know that statistic about not winning the last five (trips),” he said — but Joyner understands what lies ahead in Death Valley.
“We know it’s not going to be a walk in the park — it’s going to be a walk in a dark alley,” Joyner said. “Not to disrespect what happened before, Clemson’s a very talented football team, Death Valley’s a very tough place to play … but at the end of the day, it’s a 60-minute football game. Backyard football. May the best man win.”