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The Atlantic Division Ghost Proves To Be Mortal

The Atlantic Division Ghost Proves To Be Mortal
By Scott Rhymer

As you all know, Clemson has not won an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship since 1991. During the 13 years between Clemson’s last ACC Title in 1991 and the inaugural 2005 ACC Championship Game between the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions, Clemson finished in the top 2 of the ACC only 3 times (1996, 1999, and 2000).

But the ACC became a “different” conference in 2005, when the additions of Boston College and Virginia Tech led to the creation of the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions and an ACC Championship Game. In some ways, I guess you would say the expectations were heightened a bit to enter the showcase game and earn a BCS bowl berth.

What followed since that championship game inception was a frustrating four year stretch of time where former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden found multiple ways to have the ACC Championship game elude his program.

Bowden, and Clemson, chased a ghost.

In 2005, Clemson started 2-0 with wins over Texas A&M and Maryland before dropping three ACC games in a row in route to a 3rd place ACC finish in the Atlantic Division. Despite losing to Clemson, Florida State would represent the Atlantic in the inaugural ACC Championship Game.

In 2006, the Tigers jumped out to a 7-1 start with a captivating ESPN Game Day win over Georgia Tech that led to a top 12 ranking. But the Tigers got smashed in Blacksburg on a Thursday night and followed it up with an unexplainable home loss to Maryland the following week. Despite defeating Wake Forest earlier in the year, the Demon Deacons would represent the ACC in the 2006 ACC Championship game.

In 2007, Clemson jumped out to a 4-0 start before losing a bizarre game in Atlanta vs. Georgia Tech and following it up with a whipping at home against Virginia Tech. But the Tigers showed some fortitude, reeling off four straight wins to hold the Atlantic Division fate in our own hands with a home finale against Boston College with the ACC Title game going to the team that would win the game. Matt Ryan and the Eagles would score late and Aaron Kelly would let the ACC Atlantic Division slip through his hands and for the third straight year, Bowden’s Tigers would not make the title game.

With optimism running high, Clemson would start the 2008 season in the Georgia Dome against Alabama. The Crimson Tide would smack Clemson in the face, and after back to back losses to Maryland and Wake Forest later in September Bowden’s career at Clemson ended while Boston College advanced for the 2nd straight year to the ACC Championship game (despite the fact that the Tigers beat Boston College for Dabo Swinney’s first win as interim coach at Clemson).

Tommy Bowden provided many reasons and excuses for why Clemson, the most storied football program in the Atlantic Coast Conference, went 0-4 on his watch in the two division format in reaching the ACC Championship Game. Bowden seemed to be chasing a ghost. The ghost would appear every year in some form or frame of reference, only to disappear at the most inopportune time. Bowden seemed to believe, or at least perpetuate to the fan base, that the ghost of the ACC Championship game was something that would happen one day when fate intended it to. It was that passive tone in chasing his ghost that eventually cost Bowden his job as head of the Clemson program.

Enter Dabo Swinney and his new staff. Swinney treated the ACC race, almost from the start, as something that you have to take the offensive in earning. The Tigers took a roller coaster ride in 2009 behind the exceptional play of CJ Spiller and Michael Palmer to earn the first ever birth in the ACC Title game in Tampa. The Atlantic Division ghost, once considered the Holy Grail of the Clemson football program, was realized on a cold night in the very first full year of Dabo Swinney’s head coaching career. The Tigers would come up one play short of winning in Tampa, but the ghost seemed much more mortal.

So when Clemson stumbled and bumbled to a 6-7 season with awful offensive play in 2010, did Swinney refer to the quest of earning an Atlantic Division berth as elusive and simply left up to fate and timing? Nope. Swinney parted ways with Billy Napier and went out to find the best offensive coordinator he could.

Swinney did not believe in chasing ghosts. He believed in demanding excellence or parting ways.

This past Saturday, Clemson somehow pulled out a fortunate win against a Wake Forest team that played an almost perfect football game in trying to steal the Atlantic Division from Clemson’s grasp. The win guarantees that Clemson will earn a berth to the ACC Championship Game for the second time in three years. Clemson will join Florida State and Boston College as the only teams in the Atlantic Division to earn 2 trips to the title game. The Tigers will also have a chance to win an ACC Championship for the first time since 1991.

But maybe more important than the single accomplishment of earning the trip back to the ACC Championship game is a more important realization as a football program (administration, coaches, players, and fans) that winning the Atlantic Division is not like chasing a ghost.

For a program like Clemson, with the vast infrastructure, resources, tradition, and support…earning a trip to the ACC Championship game by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division should be an expectation, not a quest.

That fact is not intended to diminish the accomplishment of this team and coaching staff this year (or in 2009). You don’t have to be one of the top two teams in the ACC to play for the title, you only have to be the best team of the six in the Atlantic Division. But that is something that, admittedly, will not happen every year and still can be a difficult accomplishment even if you have a good football team. It takes hard work, good coaching, good players, and a bit of fortune.

But with all due respect to Boston College and Wake Forest, there is absolutely no reason that Clemson has had to play catch up in the past six years under the two division format in earning Atlantic Division berths. If Florida State, or even NC State, were outperforming Clemson on the football field during the past six years, one could understand that fact even if you could not be happy with it. FSU and NCSU both have the infrastructure to play big time football and falling short of those two programs would be disappointing but not shocking.

But the Wolfpack have proven to be miserable under the two division format, never even keeping themselves in contention as October turned to November these past six years. They are now the team that is chasing ghosts, ala Tommy Bowden and the pre-Dabo Tigers.

And Florida State is suffering the growing pains of allowing Bobby Bowden to lead the program about five years too long. The Seminoles won’t evaporate into irrelevance, even if the calls for their re-emergence as national powers may be premature. They chased a ghost in 2011, but they will be the major roadblock to Clemson repeating as Atlantic Division Champs in 2012.

But this year, it is Clemson. And for two of the past three years it has been Clemson. And two of the next three years it should be Clemson. And six out of the next nine years it should be Clemson. Once upon a time, our program did not chase ghosts. Our program won championships.

Some of you will read this and think that I am piling on Tommy Bowden for his inability to get Clemson to the ACC Championship Game. Maybe some of you think I am giving Dabo Swinney too much credit in getting Clemson to the ACC Championship Game two of the past three years.

Maybe it is a little bit of both. But I was tired of chasing ghosts and I’m thankful we now have a relevant football program. The only major difference the past three years than the previous four years in the two division format was the fact that now Dabo Swinney is calling the shots. For that, Swinney has to earn some measure of credit for changing the culture of this program.

Dabo has also proven that he does not believe in chasing ghosts. He has single-handedly turned that ghost into a mere mortal.


Broadcast time in Raleigh will be 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. If you have not done so, download the free Tune In App for your Droid or Ipad phone so you can stream WCCP during the season on your phones. You can also search for the new WCCP 104.9 FM App on the Droid/IPAD market place on those systems. The App is free and allows you to stream WCCP on your phone.

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