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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — How difficult is it to start the season as a top-10 college football team and finish in the top 10? That was the question rhetorically posed this week by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
Each of the previous 10 seasons, anywhere between four and six of the August elite stayed there through the end of bowl season.
Here in 2013, five preseason top-10 squads as decided by the Associated Press poll are still somewhere shuffled in there: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 6 Stanford and Swinney’s ninth-ranked Tigers.
So, the difficulty is getting there in the first place. Once a team has the talent and pedigree to earn that projected respect, recent history suggests it’s roughly a coin-flip proposition to reward the voters’ trust.
Starting and ending in the top 10? For Clemson’s part, it’s only happened twice, and they were in a three-year span: 1988 and 1990, when the Tigers scraped the top 10 with a No. 9 finish in each campaign.
Yet this 2013 team hasn’t looked around and felt like it belonged. Three straight iffy performances, highlighted (lowlighted?) by a 37-point embarrassment at home against mighty Florida State, have flung the Tigers off the national radar.
“There are a lot of questions,” senior right guard Tyler Shatley said. “I think we have the potential; that’s really all it is, is potential. The rankings are starting to matter a little bit more. But like coach Swinney says, the rankings at the beginning of the season don’t mean anything, it’s all about where you finish.
“We really want that to show this month more than ever, because it’s starting to get toward the end, when rankings matter more than ever.”
Four regular-season games left. Clemson (7-1, 5-1 ACC) figures to be highly favored in the next three, starting Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Virginia (2-6, 0-4), where the Tigers are 16-5 all-time.
Of course, that Nov. 30 date at No. 14 South Carolina, plus a bowl game against perhaps another SEC opponent, will tell the tale of Clemson’s year.
These next three games against the Cavaliers and back home against Georgia Tech and The Citadel, however, fall into the “take care of business” category where Clemson has spent most the season. The Tigers have won 15 straight games against unranked opponents by double digits, the nation’s longest such streak this side of Alabama.
“A lot of people questioned our consistency, saying we can win a big game here and there but we’ll choke,” Shatley said. “It would go to show we can be consistent. It would be a great statement to make that we deserve to be where we’re at.”
When coaches talk, their players listen, and tend to repeat mantras dropped by those coaches. Clearly, one of those messages this week was “take the pressure off Tajh” Boyd, a saying relayed to media by Shatley and numerous other Tigers this week.
Boyd’s one of the 16 Maxwell Award semifinalists, the short list for the top football players in the country. The quarterback continues to imprint his name on ACC and Clemson record books, accountable for 23 touchdowns in eight games this season.
But as his coaches and teammates tell it, he’s been putting undue pressure on himself to succeed, since his goals were astronomically high upon returning for his fifth-year senior season.
“One of the things I talk to Tajh about — sometimes I think Tajh is too smart. He knows a lot of football. I mean, a lot of football,” Swinney said. “I use the analogy with him of our pilots. Every time I get in that plane with our two pilots, they go through the same procedure. It doesn’t matter if we’ve flown 10 times that day — same procedure. They’ve got their little deal, and they’re consistent with that.
“Tajh has a little procedure, a checklist of seven things he needs to do. Sometimes he’ll skip to step four because he might take a few things for granted. It’s getting him to focus on that.”
This game is personal to Boyd. Charlottesville is 150 miles from where he played his high school ball in Hampton, Va., and he expects to have a wealth of family and friends at the game.
But as the Tigers seek that evasive 60-minute strong effort they haven’t seen in nearly a month, they know their leader can’t do it all himself.
“It’s not just him. Everybody has to be so focused on their pre-snap routine that we have the attention to details that we need,” Swinney said. “Let’s cut out some of the smoke and mirrors here, peel the onion back, and do what we do.”