For the Clemson Tigers, there are few things more frustrating than perception. This is a team that’s 5-0, that’s reached the top five in the AP poll (No. 6 in the Coach’s Poll), and that, on Saturday, demolished a battered and bruised Georgia Tech team and avenged an embarrassing loss from last year. The Tiger defense held the vaunted, deadly triple-option offense of Coach Paul Johnson to a total of 71 yards rushing and smothered, harassed, and otherwise thwarted Tech QB Justin Thomas (with the exception of two blown-coverages in the secondary that allowed Tech to score). The Clemson offense rang up 43 points and quarterback DeShaun Watson was once again a benevolent leader, dividing his laser-accurate passes among eight different receivers.
Other than a couple of poor decisions on Watson’s part that led to turnovers, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers playing better than they did. I mean, even special teams, the bane of every Tiger fans existence for the first four games, performed well, pinning down anything with a Tech jersey on kick returns, and allowing the brilliant Artavis Scott some amazing returns.
And all was right with the world, until the word, the one everyone knew was coming in some form or another, was uttered, in this case by ESPN’s David Hale at the post-game press conference: “Clemsoning,” aka the art of losing to someone you have no business losing to, usually after beating a team generally considered better.
That question, which in fairness was actually about escaping the shadow of that word, triggered a rant for the ages by Dabo Swinney in which he angrily pointed out that since 2011, the last time Clemson lost to an unranked team, they’ve beaten Ohio State, Georgia, Auburn, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma. He’s sick of the word, the team is sick of the word, and they feel, correctly, that their performance over the last four years has proven that they’re not that team anymore.
And yet the word popped up frequently on ESPN’s College Gameday. The word appears frequently on just about every pre-game show before a Clemson game. The word is playfully tossed around by fans of teams who’ve stumbled horribly this season (I’m looking at you Georgia). To a certain extent, it’s a way for fans of other teams to needle Clemson fans. But there seems to a nagging perception, particularly on ESPN, that this a team perpetually one step away from destroying themselves.
Which, in short, if I may quote the Swinney’s response once again, is bullcrap. This is a young team playing on par with, and perhaps better than, many of the more experienced and more highly regarded teams in the country. Don’t believe me? Consider the series of big scares and flat-out heartbreakers that populated this past weekend’s college football schedule. If you’re a fan of TCU, Florida St., Michigan St. or Northwestern, how confident are in your boys right now? Have any shaky moments on Saturday? Thought so.
There might be a time, maybe even this year, when “Clemsoning” comes to mean, “Fulfilling one’s potential,” instead of, I’ll just say “the other thing” in case Dabo sees this. In the meantime, it seems like the only way Clemson’s going to get any respect from some people is if they keep playing lights-out like they did last Saturday.