ATLANTA -- Their nickname also happens to be the Tigers and they claim Death Valley as their home as well, and to be further factual, the school is located in the Southeast. But that’s where the similarities ended for Clemson against LSU, at least until the final gun at the Georgia Dome, when these Tigers earned their stripes against those Tigers.
A mad scene erupted when Chandler Cantanzaro’s 32-yard field goal split through with no time left, but really, Clemson didn’t go nuts because it won the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Oh, please. When the turf was flooded quickly by frolicking Tigers and their high-strung head coach, this was a victorious reaction to beating the SEC in a big game. Years from now, when their grandkids are sitting on their laps, you think Clemson players will brag about winning a chicken sandwich or taking a scalp from a member of the Super Elite Conference?
“We felt like no one gave us a chance,” said Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard. “This is a big step for our program to beat an SEC team. We beat a team that played in the championship game just a year ago. This is huge.”
The SEC has nine teams in the bowls, and we’re not talking the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, either. The SEC is strictly prime time, bringing the kind of muscle that makes it the envy of all other conferences. The SEC will play three times on New Year’s Day, will be in two of the traditional bowls (Cotton and Sugar) and also play for the national championship. That’s world domination in college football. They’re the big-boy conference that this year even invited the snotty-nosed little brother along for the fun. And imagine this: Vandy even won.
Therefore, Clemson had an added underdog edge all night for that reason. And it showed in the fourth quarter when Clemson rallied from 12 points down and drove the football down LSU’s throat in the final 90 seconds. You could see it, feel it, sense it then. Clemson had desire. One team wanted to be here and take a stand and make a statement against a conference that has dominated college football the last several years. The other team wasn’t thrilled to make the trip.
LSU came here grudgingly, maybe even bitterly, the arrogance of a proud SEC kingpin feeling it belonged in a BCS bowl instead. And they played the fourth quarter that way, like they’d rather be somewhere else. The way the LSU defense crumbled in the closing moments, choking on a fourth-and-16 play and also killing its chances with a costly pass interference penalty, well, it was a sad spectacle for a defense that hung tight against mighty Alabama just a month earlier.
And that’s the point. LSU’s season, by all accounts, was essentially over when the Tigers collapsed similarly against the Tide. They weren’t aiming to play in a secondary bowl that wasn’t even date-stamped 2013. The hungry team won the Chick-fil-A Bowl. That wasn’t LSU.
That was Clemson, repping a basketball conference and bringing little more to Atlanta than a soft schedule and a tough quarterback. Clemson played only two good teams all season and lost both times. So you might say it had more at stake. It definitely had the best player on the field, someone who was somewhat invisible to most of college football until Monday.
“Quarterback stepped up and played like an All-American,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “He was great. But we knew he would be.”
Tajh Boyd completed 36 passes. He had a hand in all three Clemson touchdowns and nearly covered 400 yards all told. He expertly took his team downfield for the win and in quick and astonishing fashion, the SEC’s chance of running the table in the bowls was punctured, just like that.
“We put it all together and accomplished a lot, just with this one game,” said Clemson tight end Brandon Ford. “We know how good LSU is and what it means to beat them and take on the SEC.”
“It’s the best conference in football, everybody knows that,” said Swinney. “It’s always top heavy, and this year was a little different. They had a lot of depth. There’s no secret as to why they’re good. They have terrific coaches who recruit very well and also recruit in the areas that create good football players. These things go in cycles, and other conference will have good stretches every now and then, but right now it’s the SEC that’s controlling most of college football.
“But we don’t really care too much about that stuff. We don’t see it as ACC and SEC and whatever. We just look at who’s across the field from us.”
On Monday, standing across from Clemson was coach Les Miles and defensive aces Sam Montgomery and Kevin Minter, three who were mainly responsible for making LSU one of the better football programs the last two years. The Tigers controlled the Chick-fil-A Bowl until the last nine minutes, when they were overcome by a team that had more to gain by winning, if nothing else.
“Proving people wrong,” said Ford, “is a good thing.”
Proving yourself against a better team and conference is an even better thing. Come next week, after the final bowl verdict is in and the victories counted, the SEC might very well run college football.
It just didn’t run the table in the bowls. Clemson Tigers 25, LSU Tigers 24. Score one point for the basketball conference that knows how to rebound.