Friedlander: Championship still a goal for Clemson, just not the one it really wanted
Dabo Swinney has said all the right things when it comes to dealing with the disappointment of last week’s loss to rival South Carolina and its impact on Clemson’s College Football Playoff hopes.
But if the Tigers are interested in a true reality check to put them in the right frame of mind to face North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday, they might be better off heeding the message their opponent’s coach delivered to his team after its own dream-crushing regular season finale.
“I told the players if you were good enough to be a Playoff team, maybe you’d have beaten Notre Dame. But you sure would have beaten the last 2 teams and you didn’t,” Mack Brown said. “So you’re not good enough.
“You’re good enough to play for a conference championship. That’s 1 of 2 teams in this league and it’s really cool. But you’re not good enough to be a Playoff team or you would be.”
It might be easier for Brown’s Tar Heels to bounce back and be excited to play for the ACC title, considering they haven’t won it since 1980.
That predates even Brown’s first tenure in Chapel Hill.
While the conference championship has been an elusive goal for the Tar Heels, winning the league has become something of a birthright for the Tigers.
They won it 6 straight times before lending their crown to Pittsburgh last season. As much as they’d like to regain possession of it, winning the ACC was only supposed to be a stepping stone to a bigger prize this season.
One that’s no longer available.
How quickly Clemson’s players come to grips with that fact and are able reset their sights on a goal that’s still attainable will go a long way toward determining their fate at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday.
But it’s hardly the only obstacle the Tigers face.
Of far greater concern than the team’s motivation are the tactical issues that led directly to their elimination from Playoff contention.
Specifically turnovers and spotty quarterback play on offense, and a defensive secondary that’s been toasted more times than a loaf of bread at Waffle House.
Clemson has averaged 3 turnovers in each of its past 5 games, a stretch that includes both of its losses. While embattled quarterback DJ Uiagalelei hasn’t been the only culprit, he’s been the main contributor to the problem with 5 interceptions and 3 lost fumbles.
The inconsistent junior completed only 8-of-29 passes for 99 yards against the Gamecocks on Saturday and was so ineffective that the Tigers relied almost exclusively on their ground game and defense in an unsuccessful attempt to hand on to a slim lead.
While Swinney and OC Brandon Streeter have stood by Uiagalelei in the aftermath of the loss that ended both Clemson’s 7-game winning streak against South Carolina and ACC-record 40-game home win streak, their vote of confidence is anything but emphatic.
“Yeah, DJ will start the game,” The Clemson Insider reported Swinney said on his radio show earlier this week. “That’s where we’ll start.”
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The implication is that Uiagalelei will be on a short leash against the Tar Heels. It’s almost a certainty that the Tigers will turn to freshman Cade Klubnik, their quarterback of the future, at the first sign of trouble.
The defensive issues aren’t as easily addressed.
Clemson was able to blame inexperience in its then-injury-riddled secondary when Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman rang up 337 yards and 45 points against it on Sept. 24. But it didn’t have that crutch on which to lean Saturday when the Gamecocks’ Spencer Rattler lit it up for 360 yards and 6 completions of 20 or more yards.
Things got so bad that ABC’s Molly McGrath reported that some of the Tigers’ defensive backs were arguing amongst themselves on the sideline during the 2nd half.
The situation has the potential to get worse before it gets better against Drake Maye, the ACC’s leading passer, and his stable of talented receivers. Especially with starting safety RJ Mickens serving a 1st-half suspension for targeting.
About the only thing the Tigers can do, other than generate more of a pass rush to take some of the pressure off its secondary, is have a short memory and keep looking forward not behind. Or as DC Wes Goodwin put it, “flush it and make things right this week.”
That in itself should be enough motivation for Clemson to get over its Playoff disappointment and be at its best in Charlotte against the Tar Heels on Saturday.
If not, there’s also a championship on the line.
It might not be the one the Tigers really want or are good enough to earn a shot at. But it’s a championship. And in the words of UNC’s Brown, winning it is still really cool.