If you believe in teams of destiny, there’s more than enough evidence to submit Clemson as a candidate.
One game remains on the schedule and already this team has achieved much more than any Clemson team before it – save one.
The stakes are raised beginning this week against a South Carolina team that’s as dangerous as a wounded dog. Clemson won’t be seduced by a 3-8 record because enough of these players were on the team that lost a third, fourth and fifth straight to the Gamecocks, and they’re still gargling saltwater to scrub the bitterness.
Then they play North Carolina for the ACC Championship, and until the Tar Heels were pushed into overtime by an emotional Virginia Tech team saying goodbye to its legendary coach, they’d been one of the hottest offensive teams in the country.
Should they win both of those games, Clemson would undoubtedly be the top seed in the second College Football Playoff, the consensus No. 1 team in the game. The potential field continued to shrink with Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State, which means a return with Notre Dame on a neutral field becomes a possibility, but imagine the number of story lines in a Clemson-Alabama game.
While there have been stretches of pure art, five days from Thanksgiving this team remained a work in progress. The starting quarterback threw a pair of interceptions – his coach said only one was his fault – and another punt was muffed. In all there were four turnovers, yet for the fifth time this season, the second straight game, Clemson won even though it committed more major mistakes than the other team.
“We’re not going to be a great football team losing the turnover battle,” Dabo Swinney said. It was the day after his 46th birthday and the team had won its 11th game, becoming the third Clemson team in four years to hit that high water mark. “We’ve got some work to do, that’s for sure.”
Quarterback Deshaun Watson, a sophomore in his first full season as the starter, continued to pile up impressive statistics which would ordinarily help his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy, were it not for the 10 interceptions. Yet winning is the bottom line and Clemson has won 15 of the 16 games he started.
“Picks are going to happen during the season. I’m going to throw the ball over 400 times in 10 games, so it’s bound to happen,” Watson said. “If we get the ‘W’ it doesn’t matter to me.”
At half the stadiums in the country this weekend it was the final home game for the seniors, and left guard Eric Mac Lain wasn’t ready to release the moment from his grip.
Mac Lain came to Clemson as a tight end and grew into an interior lineman and finally earning a regular gig in his final season. Without him the line could have been ordinary this season, yet Clemson started two freshmen at tackle Saturday and Mac Lain gently grabbed them by the scruff and dragged them forward.
“Last home game in the valley is kind of special,” he said. “Little known fact for you guys, I became the winningest player in Clemson history today.
“Lot of games to go, four more hopefully.”
That’s what remains, really, the hope.
Watson always gives them an advantage even if he misses an occasional throw. For a while they had both him and backup Kelly Bryant on the field at the same time. Tony Elliott, one of the two young offensive coordinators, said they intended to use the package last week at Syracuse until Bryant fumbled on the first play. In fact, he said, Wake Forest opened the game with both of its quarterbacks on the field.
If nothing else it planted a seed to drive South Carolina’s defensive coordinators crazy because teams of destiny aren’t afraid to take a chance.
“I’m a man of faith so I believe there’s a destiny out there for us,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what it is. I’ve told our guys, just remain humble. If we remain humble, we’ll reach our destination.
“I don’t know if this is a team of destiny,” he said. “Obviously we’ve got areas for improvement in every phase.
“But we’re a good football team. We’ve shown we can win in many different ways. I think that’s a sign of a good team.”