Crowning moment: Tigers earn shot at title

After years of near-misses, Clemson in ACC championship game

pstrelow@thestate.comNovember 22, 2009 

CLEMSON | Reflecting on the unlikely success of a team led by one of the youngest head coaches and one of the youngest offensive coordinators in the BCS conferences, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney puffed out his shoulders and mockingly flexed.

When athletics director Terry Don Phillips promoted Swinney from receivers coach to head coach last year, he believed Swinney fit the mold of another up-and-comer he pushed to hire at Oklahoma State years ago, Mike Gundy.

So it was fitting when Swinney, who turned 40 on Friday, mimicked Gundy's infamous rant when a reporter asked about the statement made by him and 30-year-old coordinator Billy Napier.

"I am 40," Swinney said softly but demonstrably. "I'm a man.

"This is an awesome moment. Our fans deserve this. This thing has eluded us for a while, so to punch through and get this thing done ... to put together a run like we have, it's very gratifying."

Clemson's anticlimactic 34-21 victory against Virginia on Saturday amounted to a coming-of-age party, minus the surprise.

About 20 minutes before kickoff, the 18th-ranked Tigers (8-3, 6-2 ACC) secured the Atlantic Division title when Boston College fell 31-13 to North Carolina.

That stamped Clemson's ticket to the Dec. 5 ACC championship in Tampa, Fla., where it will face No. 7 Georgia Tech in a rematch of its 30-27 loss in Atlanta on Sept. 10.

Awareness of their fate might have taken some of the edge off the Tigers, but they sent out their senior class in style, winning the division title outright behind its fifth straight 30-point, offensive showing and a second-half rebound from the defense.

Despite telling the staff to keep the Boston College loss a secret, Swinney broke the news shortly before the team took the field. All accounts said the Tigers responded to the news indifferently, figuring the team would not be granted any respect if it went out and snapped Virginia's four-game losing streak.

"You really didn't feel it," senior tight end Michael Palmer said. "I think we had to get the win to feel it. We had to go out and take care of business."

The Cavaliers (3-8, 2-5) didn't make that task any easier, staying close throughout the first half with a mixed bag of trick plays and daring decisions reflective of a team with nothing left to lose.

But after allowing a 23-yard touchdown pass as time expired in the first half to trim its lead to 24-21 - more points than Virginia had in its previous five games - Clemson's defense bandaged the bleeding and held the Cavaliers to a mere 40 yards the rest of the way.

Senior running back C.J. Spiller's Heisman Trophy candidacy likely suffered a blow as Spiller was held to 58 rushing yards and a touchdown in his next-to-last regular season game.

Yet even the Spiller storyline took a backseat to the big picture - the program's first ACC title since 1991 is now within reach. And it took the Tigers overcoming a 2-3 start to get over the proverbial hump for its first division title since the ACC adopted the split-division format five years ago.

"It feels good to finally prove people wrong," said senior receiver Jacoby Ford, who had a career-high 195 all-purpose yards and a receiving touchdown.

Perhaps as proof that some folks have been converted into believers, ACC commissioner John Swofford was on hand to present the division trophy in the locker room afterward.

It took Palmer and senior tight end Rendrick Taylor two minutes to finally get an adrenaline-charged Swinney to stay still on the sideline long enough to douse him with the standard water-cooler bath with a minute remaining.

Swinney thanked anyone and everyone in his postgame media address, name-dropping down to the well-known local who runs the popular hamburger dive.

Yet Swinney presented the game ball in the locker room afterward to Phillips, who drew criticism after the Tigers' early season slip-ups.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him," Swinney said. "He had the vision to see something in me to give me the opportunity to lead this program and really go against the grain.

"A lot of people probably didn't want me to get this job. Probably a lot of people still don't want me to have this job. But I got it. And we're division champs."

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