CLEMSON — The only thing worse than losing a football game is the week that follows.
After spending all summer on the hype train, and justifying those expectations with a win over a top-5 opponent followed by six weeks of success, Clemson finds itself backed into a corner for the first time this year, getting asked what went wrong instead of what went right.
Not only did Florida State’s 51-14 clinic last Saturday all but shatter the ninth-ranked (previously No. 3) Tigers’ championship hopes from conference to national levels, but it caused a range of panic and dismissal from outside observers who clipped Clemson from their primary radar.
That wasn’t the mindset this past week for head coach Dabo Swinney, who looked to impress that upon his “hurting football team” in preparation for a two-game road trip, starting Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Maryland.
“You can’t sit around and fret and pout over what could have been,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to focus on what still can be, and there’s a long list of things that still can be for this team, that we are in total control of.”
The Tigers would have tumbled further upon losing at home by 37 to even the finest of contenders, if not for carnage elsewhere in the rankings to squads like LSU, Texas A&M, UCLA and Louisville.
Since the start of 2011, Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) has won four of five games immediately following defeat.
“I have no reason to think they won’t respond, because they always do,” Swinney said. “This is a hurting football team, and I love that. We’re going to be OK because they care. Nobody cares more than these players who put all the work in.”
Both sides of the ball seek redemption for Clemson. Particularly on offense, Tajh Boyd has seen a well-tuned machine clunk along with eight turnovers in the past three games. The Tigers’ first unit scored just one touchdown in the FSU debacle.
“We look at this as a job. It’s not like we want to go out there and purposely mess up,” Boyd said. “You’ve got to be accountable for your actions out there, whether it’s studying more or performing better, you’ve got to get your job done.”
While the focus on Clemson’s troubles has settled on the offense, its revamped defense was humbled by Florida State, allowing a season-worst 44 points, 565 total yards, 29 first downs and eight third-down conversions.
“You’ve got to play this game in an aggressive way,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Losing stinks. It can never be acceptable.”
In Maryland, though, Venables’ unit catches a break. The Terrapins have lost their starting quarterback, running back, tight end and two wide receivers to injury for the game.
On the other side, cornerback Dexter McDougle is also out Saturday, which could allow some breathing room for the Tigers’ own receivers against the No. 65-rated pass defense.
“We’ll hopefully come out and have 500, 600 yards of offense,” Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins said, “and show the country that we still can come off a big loss and still perform, hopefully get everybody’s attention in the national rankings.”
Although the dream of perfection has ended, the Tigers still figure as favorites in their final three conference games, putting them in good position to reach 10 wins before their regular season finale at South Carolina.
“This is college football, where the unthinkable happens. So anything can happen,” Swinney said.
“Who knows? We’re a top 10 team; nobody’s going to put their head down and cry about that, and nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.
“We still have a chance to be a great team. I think we’re a great team. But we’ve got to go finish that way.”