Clemson is limping into defining stretch
CLEMSON -- There are three trajectories Clemson can traverse the next two weeks, paths leading to far-reaching consequences for the program.
There's the worst-case scenario: after an inexplicable 24-point loss at N.C. State on Saturday, dropping Clemson 11 spots to No. 18 in the Associated Press poll, Clemson can continue its second-half slide against South Carolina's No. 5-ranking defense on Saturday, and erase any remaining goodwill accrued with a loss in the ACC title game.
There's the best-case scenario for Clemson: regroup to defeat No. 14
South Carolina (9-2) for the first time since Dabo Swinney shed the interim coach label and follow with the program's first conference title in 20 years.
There is also the something-in-between option for Clemson: split the next two games, but even that scenario might leave a sour taste after the elevated expectations accompanying an 8-0 start.
The next two weeks are a defining period for Clemson.
Clemson (9-2) can step up or step backward. The injury-ridden, and confidence-depleted Tigers can perhaps change perception and propel the program from a two-decade stretch of mediocrity or revert to what analysts will judge to be the same old Clemson.
"It's a great opportunity for us to build momentum," Swinney said of the next two weeks. "Any time you play for a championship -- a state championship and a conference championship -- and win them, it's great positive momentum and that's what we are focused on doing.
"Our goals are still intact."
Swinney said all that has been learned about his 2011 team is that it is not a national championship unit.
Clemson learned it is not an elite team without starting left tackle Phillip Price and star receiver Sammy Watkins, both missed the N.C. State game.
Barring a setback, Watkins (shoulder) will play at South Carolina. Swinney said Watkins will "hopefully" return to full participation in practice Tuesday. Swinney said Price is the "biggest question mark" health wise.
Price was expected to run Sunday night to test the right knee (MCL sprain) he injured against Wake Forest. With Price sidelined Saturday, Clemson allowed six sacks at N.C. State after allowing 18 sacks in the first 10 games of the season with Price in the lineup.
But Clemson has lost something more than key players in recent weeks, the Tigers lost confidence and the ability to execute, said offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
"We have got to get back that confidence we played with the first eight or nine games," Morris said. "We have to get back to that mental focus, that drive, that hunger we had."
Clemson has also lost a dimension of its offense: its running game. Clemson has averaged 2.96 yards per carry since the win at Maryland, running woes Morris said have "hamstrung" Clemson.
Clemson cannot afford to become one-dimensional against a South Carolina team allowing a paltry 279 yards per game. Clemson cannot afford to regress in a defining time.