Ron Morris

November 25, 2009

Morris: Too much is at stake for Spiller to play

Dabo Swinney should sit star tailback C.J. Spiller for Saturday's game against South Carolina.

DABO SWINNEY SHOULD sit star tailback C.J. Spiller for Saturday's game against South Carolina.

Before firing off e-mails and leaving rants on my voicemail, consider a couple of factors that led me to the conclusion Spiller needs to be on the sideline in street clothes at Williams-Brice Stadium.

First, Spiller has turf toe. Although his statistics do not show it, Spiller has been hindered all season by the injury. If you watched him play Saturday against Virginia, you saw him limp slowly to the sideline numerous times. Occasionally, he pulled himself out of the lineup.

Any doctor will tell you the best -- maybe only -- cure for turf toe is rest. Lots of rest. Two weeks of inactivity would do wonders for Spiller's toe and possibly enhance his performance in Clemson's biggest game in decades.

That brings me to the second reason for Spiller to sit. Clemson's game against Georgia Tech on Dec. 5 in Tampa, Fla., for the ACC championship carries much greater importance than its game against USC on Saturday.

Not that the USC game is not important to the Tigers. It is. But teams play first and foremost for championships. So why not have your best player ready and in tip-top shape for your first crack at an ACC championship since 1991?

"No, no. We play to win," Dabo Swinney said when asked if he would consider not using his Heisman Trophy candidate against USC. "We're playing to win. It doesn't matter. We're playing for the state championship this week."

Swinney is missing the point. Clemson will play to win with or without Spiller. While Spiller undoubtedly is one of college football's best and most exciting players, Clemson is formidable without him. Backups Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper have combined for 715 yards rushing, and Ellington is averaging nearly 7 yards per carry.

No doubt, a "state championship" is worth capturing. In addition to continuing its dominance of USC, Clemson could gain a recruiting edge over its rival with a win.

That's why Swinney had an oversized clock installed outside the team meeting room. Shortly after Clemson's win over Virginia, the clock began counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to "Win State!" as the message board above it read.

That's a nice touch, one of many Swinney will need to get his team properly motivated for Saturday's game. If he can get the Tigers to play their best under these circumstances, then we should view him forever as a master motivator.

Fact is, Clemson came out flat against Virginia and sleep-walked through the first half. It was clear Clemson did not carry an edge to the field after learning it had clinched the Atlantic Division championship when Boston College lost earlier in the day to North Carolina.

Here is yet another factor that makes Clemson's game against USC pale in comparison to the ACC championship game -- money. Bowl money generally is divided among conference members, after the initial cut off the top to each participating team. If Clemson wins the ACC title, it is likely to play in the Orange Bowl, which has an annual payout in excess of $17 million.

Lose the title game and Clemson drops to a non-BCS bowl, meaning its payout also drops drastically. A year ago, the payout to each team in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was $5.5 million. It was $1.6 million for the Music City Bowl.

So we're talking about an additional $1 million or so going to Clemson for playing in a BCS bowl. That is important, folks, because it essentially can pay off the additional salary (about $1 million) Swinney earned by winning the Atlantic Division title.

Finally, you could argue Spiller must play because he is in the chase for the Heisman Trophy. That is valid, as Spiller could enhance his chance of at least attending the awards ceremony in New York with a big game against USC. Spiller has enjoyed great success against the Gamecocks, rushing for 331 yards on 42 carries in three meetings for a per-carry average of 7.9.

But the fact is, Spiller can better boost his ratings with a big game in the ACC championship. Even so, Spiller is not going to win the Heisman. And when did individual honors move ahead of a team's quest for a conference championship?

If Clemson truly wanted to boost Spiller's Heisman candidacy, it would have run up big numbers in the lopsided win against Coastal Carolina. Instead, Spiller carried five times for 27 yards.

Swinney played it smart against Coastal Carolina. He rested Spiller and his banged-up toe. He should do the same against USC. A well-rested and healthy Spiller is much more important against Georgia Tech than a hobbled Spiller against USC.

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