ATLANTA — A bowl game’s outcome often has little bearing on the results of the next season. Players graduate. Coaches turn over. The energy and the feeling of postseason games are typically fleeting.
But this one felt different.
Clemson’s 25-24 victory over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night could have long-ranging influence.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney noted his program would have to live with the results of the Chick-fil-A Bowl for the next eight months, good or bad. Clemson knew what it was to live with last season’s Orange Bowl loss.
Had Chandler Catanzaro’s last-second field-goal attempt missed, Clemson would again lament being one play away. Doubters would declare Clemson’s double digit-win season to be fraudulent, as it had not defeated a ranked team entering Monday. With another loss, Clemson would enter 2013 as a suspect team.
Instead, Catanzaro’s 37-yard kick was good. The kick heard ‘round the ACC changes the entire offseason conversation and perception regarding Clemson.
The Tigers (11-2) proved to a national audience that they are different. Clemson physically matched an elite SEC defense. Clemson was resilient, overcoming an early injury to Sammy Watkins. And this time it was Clemson making plays in the fourth quarter, outgaining LSU 159 to 1 in yardage in the final period to overcome an 11-point deficit in one of the best fourth-quarter performances in program history.
It validated a season in which Clemson reached 11 wins for just the fourth time in program history and first time since the national title season of 1981.
“You can’t win 12 until you win 11,” Swinney said. “You can’t win a national championship until you learn how to win games like this. … They fought every fricking play. They played with a lot of love and toughness. (LSU) is a national championship team.
“This was a landmark win.”
The win could give Clemson its first top 10 poll finish since 1990. And Clemson has an excellent chance at beginning 2013 as a preseason top 10 team.
The win over No. 8 LSU (10-3) was the highest ranked opponent Clemson had defeated in a bowl since topping No. 6 Tennessee in 2004, and it was the highest ranked SEC opponent an ACC team has defeated since Clemson’s win over Tennessee.
It was Clemson’s first fourth-quarter comeback in a bowl game since the 1959 Bluebonnet Bowl.
Clemson proved it was a different team and Tajh Boyd proved he was a different quarterback, a quarterback who looks like a 2013 Heisman contender — if he returns.
After enduring a second-half slide last season that was tied in part to poor quarterback play, Boyd’s gutsy performance — 79 combined passes and rushes, three touchdowns, no turnovers — was made more impressive when placed in the context of Clemson being without two of its most skilled receivers in Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
Boyd said Watkins figured in the game plan “a pretty adequate amount,” and Clemson had to draw up a new plan on the fly.
“Once (Watkins was injured) I said ‘Well, I guess we better do something different,’ ” Boyd said. “Once again, Coach (Chad) Morris is a mastermind. He’s going to put us in a situation to make plays. I love playing with him.”
The game was a victory for Clemson coordinators, the highest-paid pair of assistants in the country. Not only did Morris regroup on the fly and restore balance to the Clemson offense attack — 50 passes, 50 runs vs. LSU — but defensive coordinator Brent Venables managed to transform the tenacity and aptitude of his defense over 15 bowl practices, with a graduate assistant, Wesley Goodwin, coaching the defensive backs.
To make the fourth-quarter comeback possible, Clemson forced three straight three-and-outs to end the game, and held LSU to converting only 3 of 13 third downs.
“Improving fundamentals,” Venables said of the change. “Splits, personnel, formations, motions and down-and-distance, we talk about that as much as anything. We needed it. When you understand why and how you do things, you are going to play a lot more sure of yourself. You are going to trust your eyes and your technique and guy next to you. That’s what it is. That’s all it is.”