CLEMSON - Dabo Swinney suggested he prayed hard for Clemson to reach next week's ACC championship game because of what it would mean to former coach Danny Ford, who will be honored there as the program's designated "legend" this year.
If it meant that much to Ford, imagine the significance should the 15th-ranked Tigers reach the Orange Bowl, site of the 1981 postseason triumph that secured the national championship and cemented Ford as a program icon.
On the flip side, imagine how this season's Atlantic Division title breakthrough could lose its luster if all Clemson has to show alongside it is a berth in the Music City Bowl.
"There's still a lot of football left to be played," Champs Sports Bowl executive director Steve Hogan said.
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While the Tigers accomplished their elusive breakthrough in the Atlantic Division, perception of their season figures to be framed as much by their outcomes the next two weeks, starting with Saturday's noon game at rival USC.
If Clemson (8-3, 6-2 ACC) beats No. 7 Georgia Tech in next week's ACC title game in Tampa, Fla., it advances to the BCS' Jan. 5 Orange Bowl in Miami, where Big Ten foes Iowa and Penn State are believed the top candidates for at-large selection.
But if the Tigers fall short of their first ACC crown since 1991, there's no guarantee they land in the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, which has the first pick of ACC teams not involved in BCS contests.
Bowl insiders believe it's feasible Clemson is passed over twice and slips to the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.
And that's where the Tigers' performances these next two games could factor in to how far they might slide.
If Clemson beats USC but loses to Georgia Tech, the Chick-fil-A Bowl is expected to select between the Tigers or No. 14 Virginia Tech. The Hokies would likely be higher ranked under that scenario while also boasting the marketing momentum of a four-game winning streak if they top Virginia on Saturday.
The prevalent sentiment in some bowl circles is that the Chick-fil-A Bowl might be favoring the Hokies regardless of Clemson's USC result, but a couple of strong showings by the Tigers could render that belief premature.
The Chick-fil-A has not selected the title loser in the two years it has had the ACC's No. 2 pick, but both years that available option was Boston College, a leper for the bowl tie-ins.
Two other elements to take into account: Virginia Tech's fans have been to Atlanta once this year for the season-opener against Alabama, and it remains to be seen which option would make the more compelling matchup against the SEC candidate that emerges from the pool of Arkansas, Auburn, USC, Georgia and likely Saturday's Tennessee/Kentucky loser.
If Clemson were to be passed over, the next stop in the pecking order is the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Tigers were beaten by Nebraska in last year's Gator Bowl, but bowl president Rick Catlett said Monday he would not be averse to taking Clemson again because of its strong fan base and local ties to running back C.J. Spiller and quarterback Kyle Parker.
"It's Clemson, they're just different," Catlett said. "Their fans will follow them through good times or bad. They will remain on our list until we're forced to take them off."
However, the stigma of being the ACC title loser could strike Clemson twice.
Like Virginia Tech, No. 24 North Carolina would be riding a five-game winning streak if it tops N.C. State on Saturday, and the Gator Bowl is said to be highly interested in roping in the Tar Heels for the first time since 1998. Furthermore, Gator officials developed a clear disdain for taking the ACC championship loser when it experienced the financial pratfalls for being forced to do so by the league in 2005 and 2006.
The ACC participant could face the loser of next week's game between No. 5 Cincinnati and No. 8 Pittsburgh; unranked West Virginia; or Notre Dame if it defeats Stanford on Saturday to reach the seven-win plateau.
Should Clemson still be available thereafter, signs point to the Tigers settling into the Champs Sports Bowl instead of plummeting all the way to the Dec. 27 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn. - the farthest the ACC championship loser can fall, per league guidelines.
Instate resident Miami would present the biggest challenge to the Tigers' Champs Sports selection, but speculation leans toward Clemson's starpower, resume and fan following making it the prohibitive choice.
Assuming a second Big Ten team leaps to the BCS, Northwestern and Wisconsin appear the likely candidates to fill the other Champs Sports slot.
"One of the complicating factors - and it's a good thing for us - is there are a lot of good ACC teams in the mix this year," Hogan said. "It's going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out."