As Dabo Swinney took part in a pre-ACC Championship Game press conference from his office via Zoom on Sunday, it was hard not to notice the diagram of SoFi Stadium just over his right shoulder.
No big deal, the Clemson head coach said.
The Los Angeles venue for the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 9 isn’t actually part of Clemson’s annual goals list for the season, he explained.
Still, when Clemson achieved all of those Swinney-instilled goals …
Win the opener
Win the division
Win the state championship
Win the ACC
Win the closer
… the Tigers also won the national championship (2016, 2018).
It’s a shaky college football world when Clemson coaches and players after a 31-30 upset loss to South Carolina on Nov. 26 can no longer peek ahead to SoFi — not far from where Southern Californian DJ Uiagaelei grew up — as Southern California steams toward a playoff spot. And must answer questions about whether Uiagalelei should be the starting quarterback in the Dec. 3 ACC Championship Game against North Carolina in Charlotte.
Yes, Swinney states emphatically, Uiagalelei still gets to start after throwing 21 incompletions in 29 attempts against an injury-riddled South Carolina defense.
Clemson is 10-2, likely to remain in or near the top 10 of the CFP rankings. The season is far from over.
The two biggest goals remain out there, and diagrams of Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium are available.
Here’s how Clemson can make the most of its loss to South Carolina:
Get to 12-2
What an incredible opportunity, a chance to finish 12-2. Only 40 Power 5 conference teams in the last 119 years have won more than 12 games (four times for Swinney-led Clemson teams).
It must start in Charlotte with something Clemson never quite accomplished during its five-game losing streak to South Carolina from 2009-2013: Winning an ACC title and a bowl game.
Grady Jarrett was as disgusted as any player you will ever find after a rivalry game loss. The Atlanta Falcons’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle vowed to do something about it on a Saturday night in 2013 just after Clemson turned the ball over six times at Williams-Brice Stadium in its fifth straight double-digit loss to South Carolina.
That team went on to beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, and Jarrett as permanent team captain was a big part of the 2014 Clemson team that started a seven-game win streak against the Gamecocks.
Running back Will Shipley had that Grady Jarrett look late Saturday afternoon.
Asked if the South Carolina loss was about the Gamecocks playing good on defense or the Tigers playing bad on offense, he said it was “a culmination of both.”
“Culmination,” not combination.
Culmination: “the highest or climactic point of something …”
Clemson’s player leaders have to translate the sting to North Carolina prep, and beyond.
Deshuan, Trevor and Kelly
Clemson won national titles with a pair of NFL first-round draft pick quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson in 2016 and Trevor Lawrence in 2018.
But the Tigers made the 2017 playoff with a guy who didn’t make the All-ACC third team, or honorable mention.
But Kelly Bryant played well in big regular-season games, was the ACC Championship Game star and was 17th nationally in QBR.
Reasonably, but not necessarily amazingly, improved quarterback play, something between Watson/Lawrence caliber and Uiagalelei (48th in QBR), will work for Clemson if the quarterback is surrounded by a bunch of real good players.
Or if the quarterback isn't going to be as good, get better receivers or do a better job coaching receivers.
Clemson, unlike almost all other Power 5 programs, has ignored the transfer portal over the last two years.
With one exception, and it comes with an asterisk: Hunter Johnson left Clemson, went to Northwestern and is back as a grad student third-string quarterback.
But Clemson could have used a veteran backup safety against South Carolina, and a capable veteran third-string quarterback as Uiagalelei was struggling and the coaching staff for whatever reason wasn’t ready to insert freshman backup Cade Klubnik.
Surely, Clemson can attract such a ballplayer next transfer cycle.
Former Clemson wide receiver, outstanding “WRU” position coach, co-offense coordinator, recruiting coordinator.
Just let go as South Florida head coach.
Lure him back as Associate Head Coach or something that allows for widespread input.
Special teams lesson
A little thing became a big thing Saturday.
Shipley started a special teams trick play by fielding a kick return and dashing over to hand the ball to fellow running back Phil Mafah. He broke for 13 yards down the right sideline only to cough up the football.
South Carolina recovered to squelch Clemson momentum after a safety and start a Gamecocks touchdown drive.
True, it was truly a surprise to mix Mafah into a special-teams play when he hadn’t touched the ball on any return all season.
But next time maybe let an experienced special-teamer do that.
Ultimately, Clemson — as with last season’s 10-3 record widely panned in Clemson Nation but mostly admired outside the orange confines — is a victim of its own better-than-all-except-Alabama success.
And that means having to explain a stadium diagram while going for a seventh ACC championship in eight years and still in position to hold up large trophies in Charlotte and Miami.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff