Ron Morris

November 20, 2009

Morris: Let's hold off on crowning Swinney, Tigers

Minutes after it became apparent this past Saturday that Clemson needed to beat Virginia to clinch the division title, Dabo Swinney put everything in perspective.

SEASON AFTER SEASON Dabo Swinney has this championship thing figured out. Minutes after it became apparent this past Saturday that Clemson needed to beat Virginia to clinch the division title, Swinney put everything in perspective.

He talked about how Clemson has not accomplished a thing this season. Truth is, Clemson has not done anything under Swinney - so far - that it did not do under Tommy Bowden in his nine-plus seasons as coach.

Until Clemson clinches the ACC Atlantic Division championship with a victory against Virginia on Saturday at Death Valley, Swinney, his players and the Tigers' fan base needs to keep the champagne boxed in crates. Do not even put it on ice.

Why? Because, frankly, we have all seen this before: Clemson on the verge of greatness; Clemson falling just short.

Give Bowden full credit for putting Clemson in position to challenge for ACC titles season after season. Also pin the blame on him for never being able to push his team over the top.

From Bowden's first season of 1999 through the final season of ACC play without divisions, Clemson finished second in the standings twice - 1999 and 2000. Since divisional play began in 2004, the Tigers have been bridesmaids twice.

Clemson fans know all about heartbreak, because Bowden's teams consistently teased - then let them down. The two biggest carrots Clemson dangled for its fans were the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

After a 7-1 start in '06 that included a 4-1 mark in the ACC, Clemson imploded in back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Maryland. The '07 Tigers were 8-2 overall, 5-2 in the league and needing to beat Boston College to secure a division title. They lost, of course, on a late Boston College touchdown.

But this team is different, you say. This team has battled back from a disheartening 2-3 start that including an embarrassing loss at Maryland. This team has won five consecutive games, including one at Miami and another against Florida State.

Let me remind you that Bowden's teams twice had winning streaks longer than five. The 2000 Tigers opened the season with seven consecutive wins and climbed to No. 5 in the national rankings. Then they lost three of their final four, including the Gator Bowl against Virginia Tech and fell out of the final poll.

Again, in 2006, Clemson reeled off six consecutive wins and climbed to No. 12 in the country. Four losses in their final five games, including one to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, again dropped Clemson out of the final poll.

So, here Clemson is again. It sneaked into the Top 25 a week ago at No. 24, then climbed to No. 18 this week. For a program over the past decade that has been unable to deal with recognition, the national ranking might be the kiss of death.

Perhaps the only real difference in this Clemson team and those of the Bowden era is the approach of the two coaches.

If memory serves me correct, Bowden was steadfast in extolling the virtues of his team and how close it was to winning a championship. Maybe it was a matter of keeping his eyes on the prize. Maybe it was a matter of putting a positive spin on the situation, as he was known to do.

Whatever the case, Swinney's approach appears to be much more head-on. To him, nothing matters except this one game. Forget that a Boston College loss earlier in the day could clinch the division for Clemson. Forget that Saturday's opponent, Virginia, is 3-7 overall, has lost four consecutive games and rests in last place in the Coastal Division.

Swinney says his focus is on Clemson playing its best game of the season Saturday. He is heck bent on conveying that notion to his team. If the Tigers play to their abilities, wins and division championships will be taken care of.

"I tell them all the time, don't get caught up in the hype," Swinney said Tuesday at his weekly gathering with the media. "When we were 2-3 people were talking about how bad they were and how bad the coaches were. I told them not to listen to that.

"Stay committed on the prize and take everything in stride. Stay focused on what we do and how we do it. They're human beings, yes. They're going to hear that. It's our job as coaches to get them focused and prepared so that they're ready to go play."

We will see on Saturday if Swinney's Clemson team could do what Bowden's teams could not. Until then, spare me the talk about what Swinney and his team have accomplished this season.

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