For college football powers such as Clemson, early marquee games are vital

08/28/2014 8:13 PM

08/28/2014 8:14 PM

Dan Radakovich already is looking toward December and imagining how that room will be: full of professional, prudent, objective people whose goal is to put the proper four teams into the new college football playoff. No favors granted by the 13-member selection committee, no special consideration granted for friends, no home cooking for a committee member’s own school.

If Clemson is on the playoff bubble, Radakovich, the school’s athletics director, will leave the room while the others discuss the Tigers’ playoff possibilities. “Quietly,” he said with a laugh.

Were he to leave the remaining dozen members with one important point, though, Clemson’s early-season schedule would be an effective one. Now that the unpopular Bowl Championship Series has been replaced with a four-team tournament, schedule strength will be among the deciding factors to fill those slots. A team won’t get serious consideration if it danced through a season of cupcakes, and Clemson is among those that seemed to assemble its schedule with this in mind.

After the season’s first four weeks – the No. 16 Tigers open on the road against 12th-ranked Georgia on Saturday and, after hosting South Carolina State followed by an open date, travel to Tallahassee to play an ACC game against No. 1 Florida State, the defending national champion – Clemson will know exactly where it stands. If it starts 3-0, knocking off a pair of contenders, it'll be in prime position to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division and to make a compelling argument for the playoff committee, even while Radakovich waits in the hallway.

“There’s no doubt,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said, “that when you’re playing a top team like Georgia or playing in the – Chick-fil-A Kickoff game – or something like that, there’s definitely a focus that, hey, we’ve got to not only be ready, we’ve got to be ready at a really high level.”

Radakovich, who early in his career was athletics director at American University, said scheduling would be one of several criteria that could move a team in or out of the final four. Major conference championships would carry the most weight, along with an undefeated regular season. Head-to-head contests against two contenders would make for easy separation, and difficult schedules could break a potential tie. There are no computers to take the thinking out of postseason matchups; now, regardless of the committee’s planned objectivity, opinions will be expressed by more than a dozen men and women with their own ideas, backgrounds and points of emphasis.

And with this in mind, schools have built their schedules aggressively. The season’s first four weeks will include eight games between preseason top-25 teams, including nonconference contests that in past years might have been passed over for a smoother ride.

“As long as we take care of our business,” Clemson linebacker Tony Steward said, “we'll be in the right position.”

But that’s a simple plan for a complicated task, particularly for the Tigers. Swinney has emphasized to players that, should the team lose to one or both of its early heavyweights, Clemson’s season will carry on. And even if the Tigers start 3-0, potentially pushing them into the top five of the rankings, conference games against North Carolina and newcomer Louisville already have players’ attention, along with a season-ending game against Southeastern Conference team and in-state rival South Carolina.

Clemson has, in years past, played well against contenders but faltered against less talented opponents, giving birth to the term: “Clemsoning.” Most famously in 2011, the Tigers defeated three ranked teams and rose to No. 6 before unranked Georgia Tech effectively ended their national title hopes. Clemson hasn’t “Clemsoned” the past two years – Swinney has pressed players to stay focused on the upcoming opponent, no matter its reputation or ranking – but the ghosts still lurk near the team’s practice facility, where tombstones are planted for some of its biggest wins. They don’t need any help remembering their more notable losses.

“Usually in the past, the Clemson Tigers have beat us,” said Chad Morris, the Tigers’ offensive coordinator. “And that has been a big deal. If we can beat Clemson – if we can keep from Clemson beating us – we’re usually pretty good.

“We’re worried about Clemson and Georgia, and really that’s it. It’s a championship schedule, the way I look at it.”

Like many teams, the Tigers started practice Aug. 1, which matched the earliest they ever began fall drills. Coaches reminded players that each session, workout and repetition should be taken seriously considering what loomed at the end of the month. There would be no first-week tuneup, no chance to test itself and then catch its breath. Georgia will want in that playoff discussion, too, with its own agonizing schedule ahead.

Several years ago, Swinney changed his practice philosophy, abandoning sessions that became gradually more intense for workouts that started fast and ended fast. As soon as players finish stretching, Swinney said, coaches order some of the most competitive drills of the day.

“Just to kind of create the mentality of, ‘Hey, listen, there’s no warmup,' “ he said. “We’ve got to be ready to go, day one, at a high level.”

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