January 6 is three months and tons of tailgate food away. But the college football elimination process leading to the BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., is about to get as serious as touchdown algebra, and Clemson has a front-row opportunity.
A victory over Boston College on Saturday — the Tigers are 24-point favorites — sets up No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 6 Florida State on Oct. 19 at Death Valley in what projects as the highest combined ranking for any game played in South Carolina.
Official BCS rankings come out the next day.
The five keys to Clemson making it to the BCS Championship Game — against Alabama or Oregon. Or Stanford, Georgia or Ohio State:
1. Solve Jameis Winston. The Florida State quarterback is not draft-eligible until 2015, but the 6-4, 220-pound redshirt freshman has emerged as the top NFL passer prospect. Winston has the rifle arm of Matthew Stafford or Jay Cutler, but is much more elusive.
“We had him a couple of times,” Maryland head coach Randy Edsall said last week after Winston threw for 393 yards and five touchdowns in a 63-0 rout of the Terrapins. “One of the things we worked on all week was to tackle him low, wrap his legs, and we didn’t do that, we were up high.”
Winston is second in the nation in pass efficiency (behind Baylor’s Bryce Petty). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd is sixth.
2. Foot-on-gas focus. So far, so good. Picking up from last season, Boyd and the rest of the Tigers have made quick work of inferior ACC opponents. If Clemson gets by Florida State, the primary potential potholes are Oct. 26 at Maryland and a Nov. 14 (Thursday night) home game against Georgia Tech.
But Clemson better improve at those old school staples, running the ball and stopping the run. Roderick McDowell is having a nice season (294 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) but Clemson is 11th in the ACC in yards per carry (4.0).
The Tigers are 12th in the ACC in rushing defense.
“Defensively, I am very encouraged in every aspect,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We are a totally different team defensively than we were this time last year.”
3. The Streak. For now, No. 14 South Carolina remains an SEC title contender. But whatever the 2013 season records are on Nov. 30, Clemson’s four-game losing streak to the Gamecocks will be topic du jour. Will South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney dominate again? Will Clemson game-breaker Sammy Watkins do better than four catches for 39 yards (2011) and four catches for 37 yards (2012) against the arch rival? It can be 63-17 or a controversial overtime squeaker, but the Tigers have to leave Williams-Brice Stadium smiling.
4. Queen City crown. At 12-0, the Clemson traveling party carries all the pressure into the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. Little to lose for Miami or Virginia Tech, or a surprise Coastal Division representative. Clemson must cash out of Bank of America Stadium.
5. Scoreboard watching. The four-team college football playoff set for 2014 might be a year too late. The 2013 BCS computer might keep the Clemson-Florida State winner rated below an undefeated Alabama, Oregon or Stanford. Which means Clemson fans want Pac-12 chaos or an Alabama loss in the SEC Championship Game.
It’s possible, but No. 5 Stanford has only one ranked foe left other than Oregon (No. 11 UCLA at home on Oct. 19); No. 2 Oregon has two besides Stanford (at No. 16 Washington on Saturday, home vs. No. 11 UCLA on Oct. 26).
Maybe No. 1 Alabama will have a hard time with Georgia, South Carolina or Florida in Atlanta.
Wouldn’t that be something? A Clemson national championship trip that comes down to the Tigers pulling hard for the Gamecocks to upset Alabama at the Georgia Dome?
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff