SAPAKOFF COLUMN: No. 11 Clemson, headed for ACC showdown in Tallahassee, is good enough to dream big
CLEMSON — James F. Barker got caught up in the giddy spirit of make-believe Saturday. The Clemson president did a stint inside the school's Tiger mascot outfit during No. 11 Clemson's 41-7 rout of Furman.
Now it's time to see if the real Tigers can play the role of national title contender against a good team. In Florida.
The bar is high for next week's game at No. 5 Florida State (8 p.m., WCIV-TV/ABC). It's a logical set for ESPN's “GameDay” and a magnet for college football skeptics.
Even at 3-0, is a Clemson program seen suffering a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl as recently as last January ready for this?
“Yes, sir, we are ready,” Clemson safety Rashard Hall said.
Maybe not. Clemson's defense against the run is suspect. Auburn, for instance, should have stuck to handoffs.
Probably not. There were disturbing lapses on defense against Ball State and Furman despite lopsided wins.
Not quite. Depth is an issue, particularly as minor injuries add up.
But concern is the residue of opportunity. Clemson only 12 quarters removed from the Orange Bowl crush is, in Las Vegas fact, one Tallahassee upset away from playing as pointspread favorites in all the rest of its games over a relatively soft schedule.
At least until the regular-season finale against South Carolina.
“If we're going to be the team we think we can be, we have to win these games,” senior center Dalton Freeman said. “We're looking forward to the challenge.”
No matter how vulnerable against a Florida State team that has outscored Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest by a total of 166-3.
“It's a process,” senior tight end Brandon Ford said. “You have to go through the week to get ready and everybody has to be healthy. The season starts (Sunday).”
Fresh air: Watkins
Since the Orange Bowl, Brent Venables has been hired to run the defense and play-caller Chad Morris has tweaked his spread offense. And Barker wasn't the only contributor back in Tiger gear Saturday; wide receiver Sammy Watkins returned from a two-game marijuana and controlled substance suspension and looked better than ever.
“A breath of fresh air,” Morris said.
Tajh Boyd agreed.
“Just his presence alone,” the junior quarterback said. “Teams have to account for him.”
Still, the other half.
The part of the game when the other team gets the football.
“How many rushing yards did we allow?” Hall asked.
A total of 110, with 75 of that in the first half.
“Well, if it's not zero, I guess we have to do better,” Hall said.
Getting 'juiced up'
More trouble brewing: Clemson has had one sack in 60 opponent passing attempts over the two games against the inferior blocking of Ball State and Furman.
“We have to grow up quickly and improve,” Venables said. “We had some good plays (against Furman) and some not good plays.”
By the way, Clemson beat Florida State last season.
The Tigers won, 35-30, at Death Valley on the way to an ACC championship.
Oklahoma also beat the Seminoles last year, in Tallahassee, 23-10. Venables was the Sooners' defensive coordinator.
“That place was rocking,” Venables said. “Watching that horse and that Indian riding out there and throwing that spear in the ground and the fire rolling, if that doesn't get you juiced up, you ain't living.”
It's not the whole season. Clemson in a watered-down ACC can sneak into a BCS bowl game without winning in Tallahassee.
Or, the Tigers can punch their way into the top 10 and stay there for most of the season, a quick get-well offer between visits to Florida.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter/ @sapakoff.