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Looking back to 2008: How an August night in the Georgia Dome transformed the Clemson program

Entering the 2008 season, Clemson fans thought a return to the glory days of old had finally arrived.  Tommy Bowden and his Clemson Tigers were coming off a 9-4 record the season before and had only been kept out of the ACC Championship due to a last second three point loss to Matt Ryan and Boston College in their last conference game of the season.  But there was hope among many that with the return of dynamic running back duo James Davis and CJ Spiller, as well as Preseason ACC player of the Year Cullen Harper at quarterback, the Tigers would finally be able to get over the hump and capture their first conference championship in the Bowden era and reestablish themselves among college football’s elite.

A season opening game against #24 Alabama, then entering their second season under Nick Saban, was supposed to provide the perfect platform for the Tigers to make a statement on a national stage and kick start their campaign for what everyone expected to be a memorable season.  Instead, all the expectations and excitement that had surrounded Clemson entering the season had completely evaporated by the time Alabama was done physically man handling an overwhelmed Clemson team in a 34-10 Crimson Tide victory that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated.   That excruciating night in the Georgia Dome completely exposed the Tigers and sent the season into a tailspin that would have major repercussions on the program.

Following three consecutive wins over inferior opponents, Clemson dropped their next two games in depressing fashion.  The Tigers blew a 17-point halftime lead in a 20-17 home loss to Maryland before then falling to Wake Forest 12-7 to officially categorize the season as a complete catastrophe.  The Tigers were 3-3 overall with only one win over a Division I opponent, and the horrible start culminated in the resignation of Tommy Bowden by the midway point of the season.  What had begun as a season full of promise had now turned into a nightmare with Clemson football having done exactly what it had seemed to do every other time there had been expectations in the last twenty years.  Underachieve.

With a football season on the brink of being lost, athletic director Terry Don Phillips decided to place Dabo Swinney, a then 39-year old wide receivers coach in his seventh season on the Clemson staff, to serve as the interim coach for the remainder of the season.  Swinney had no previous head coaching experience, nor had he ever served as any other role other than as a positions coach, but he was selected over more decorated coaches on the staff due to his energetic and exuberant personality.  Swinney’s main task was to immediately unify the team and reignite the fan base.   He passion for the position seemed to pay dividends as  Swinney helped lead the 2008 squad to a 4-2 finish down the stretch including a 31-14 win over rival South Carolina.  He had his interim status dropped and became Clemson’s 25th head coach in the programs history.

Since being handed the reins to the program on a full-time basis, Swinney’s tenure can surely be characterized as a success.  He led the Tigers to the ACC Atlantic division title in his first full season in charge in 2009 before winning the conference title in 2011.  It was Clemson’s first conference championship in 20 years.  He’s assembled an outstanding surrounding cast of coaches, including offensive coordinator Chad Morris who is the highest paid coordinator in all of college football.  Swinney has upgraded Clemson’s facility and has continuously hauled in national caliber recruiting classes on a consistent basis during his four year tenure.

However, three straight losses to South Carolina by an average of almost 20 points, a 6-7 season in 2010, as well as last season’s 70-33 debacle against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl still has the Clemson fan yearning for more.  That “something more” now sits directly in Clemson’s path as Swinney and his Clemson team have the opportunity to do exactly what the 2008 Tigers couldn’t, and establish the Clemson program among the elite programs in college football and win Swinney full adoration from the entire Clemson fan base.

Clemson enters their ACC conference finale against NC State this Saturday with a 9-1 record and ranked #11 in the latest BCS rankings.  With a win in Death Valley, the Tigers can further extend their current school record of consecutive home wins to 13 and finish a season with 7-1 record in ACC play for the first time since the conference went to an eight game schedule.  A win against the Wolfpack would give Clemson a tenth win on the season, securing back-to-back 10 win seasons  for only the fourth time in school history while wiping away the memories of the 37-13 shellacking the Tigers suffered at the hands of Tom O’Brien’s NC State last season in Raleigh.

While there’s no doubt that this weekend’s game against NC State carries plenty of implications for the Tiger’s season, the undeniable truth is that Tiger Nation can barely contain their excitement for what’s to come the following week.  Coach speak always says to take it one game at a time but for Clemson fans, the chance to take back the crown of state champion is currently what’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind.  Should Clemson and rival South Carolina both take care of their opposition this weekend, they could set the stage for what many would consider the biggest game ever to be played in the history of the rivalry.  Both schools could potentially be possessing national top-10 rankings with likely at-large BCS invitations on the line.

Should Clemson end the Gamecock’s current three year win streak in the rivalry, an 11-1 Clemson team seems an attractive possible prospect for an at-large invitation to the Sugar Bowl.  The build-up to the bowl game would surely surpass any other since the national championship dream season of 1981 as Tiger fans imagined how to take over Bourbon Street to celebrate the New Year.  Who knows,  maybe there’d be a chance to meet Alabama and really figure out just how far the Clemson program really has come since that late August night in 2008.  While there’s still a lot left to be determined on the football field for this scenario to play out, just the possibility of it all surely makes it an exciting time to be a Tiger fan.

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