Have you ever had a high-grade concussion? If you have, you know the sense of low-key disorientation that seems to pervade every waking moment. The sudden dizziness, the nausea, the equally sudden relief- they strike without rhyme or reason and show no mercy for all that you have endured or will endure.
That’s my metaphor for the first month of Clemson Tigers football in 2021.
Let me present my credentials as this is our first meeting here at Sports Obsessive where the subject matter at hand isn’t professional wrestling. I’m 42 years old. I was born at Oconee Memorial Hospital in Seneca, South Carolina; that’s the closest hospital to campus as Clemson doesn’t have a hospital of its own (it’s a small town at the foot of the Blue Ridge, after all). My maternal family settled in the area well before Clemson University was even a thought and are one of the oldest families in the area to this day.
Some of my earliest memories are tailgating before games and Saturdays in the REAL Death Valley (yeah, that’s directed at the LSU folks). My mother worked in Athletic Admissions at Clemson in the ‘70s and ‘80s. My Aunt Beth still works at the university, as does my sister-in-law. I have baby pictures with William “The Refrigerator” Perry, for God’s sake! In my house, you do your damn pushups after every score, and you yell during the fight song. You have orange and purple on right down to your underwear (you’d better believe my wife has a gameday purple thong…oh yeah!)
The old cliché “I bleed orange and purple” doesn’t touch what I am. Clemson is more than “my favorite college football team”; it’s in my blood. It’s a part of my identity. So, it goes without saying that I’ve been through some frankly awful seasons as a Tiger fan. I survived the ousting of the legendary Danny Ford and the dismal follow-up efforts from Ken Hatfield and Tommy West. I remember all those years where the big goal was beating the South Carolina Gamecocks for the State Championship and 7-5 was a resounding success. Every game was a noon game, and you were never on prime-time TV unless Florida State was taking you out behind the shed like Old Yeller. I can still see that cocky son of a bitch, Deion Sanders, standing at the bottom of The Hill and calling our boys to run down and take that ass-whipping. There were painful years, folks.
When the millennium changed, our fortunes began to change as well. We started to beat FSU occasionally (long live Charlie Whitehurst!!). The excitement returned full force to what broadcasting legend Brent Musburger famously called “The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football”. The big recruits like C.J. Spiller started to understand that one of college football’s most underappreciated environments was on the upswing. Win totals started to regularly be 8-5 or even 9-4. There was hype, though it certainly wasn’t perfect. There were the type of inexplicable losses that became known as “Clemsoning”. When Tommy Bowden finally got the ax in 2008, however, the school decided to give an assistant coach named Dabo Swinney a chance as interim and he finished strong with a win over the Cocks for a State Championship and a bowl appearance, losing a close one to old foe, Nebraska, in the Gator Bowl by a score of 26-21.
We all know where Dabo went from there. He turned my beloved Tigers into an honest-to-God national powerhouse, a genuinely elite team that (until today) had made six straight playoffs and taken home a pair of NCAA National Championships behind generational talents in Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, along with a host of first-round talent. The last six years have been a wonderful run.
The last six years are over.
Am I being fatalistic? I don’t think so. No one is saying we are done hanging out in the upper echelon of big-time ball. What I am saying is that this year is not going to be our year. The cliché is overused in this sport, but that’s for good reason. We’ve spent year after year doing the reload thing; this year is a rebuild. That’s my main takeaway from what occurred at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh this afternoon. A bubble burst, and out of that bubble burst a truth as inevitable as the ravages of time itself- eventually your whole design gets a little stale, and you must pull a Wile E. Coyote and go “back to the old drawing board”.
I spent some time earlier today talking with Hall of Fame journalist and wrestling historian, Mike Mooneyham, of the Charleston Post and Courier. He’s been covering Clemson football basically as long as I’ve been alive. Not only he is a journalistic idol of mine, but he’s imminently qualified to talk Clemson Tiger football. I wondered where you even begin to process this and unpack the baggage of a team that has two National Championships in the last five years to go with six straight ACC Titles and six straight playoff appearances playing this poorly.
“You’re not kidding. I would never have imagined such a decline…Feeling your pain. I’m disappointed and angry at the same time. No use sugarcoating it. Clemson is not a very good team right now, and that’s surprising considering the talent. Maybe time to go through the coaching staff and make some tough decisions. That’s Dabo’s job. Play-calling has been horrendous, and elite players have failed to execute. DJ (Uiagalelei) has had four games to turn it around, and clearly he isn’t capable for whatever reason. He’s tentative and like a deer in headlights. That’s not the qualifications for a starting QB at Clemson. Thought he should have been benched in the Georgia Tech game. A tough coach makes those decisions for the good of the team. Nick Saban had no problem doing that when he benched (Jalen) Hurts for Tua (Tagovailoa).”
After the 2OT, 27-21 win by the N.C. State Wolfpack over No. 9 Clemson on Saturday in the 88th Textile Bowl (Clemson leads the series 59-29-1), it’s clear that Mike Mooneyham isn’t throwing hot takes but instead spitting facts. The tables have turned for many teams this year (I’m looking at you, Ohio State), but there’s more going on in Tigertown. I feel it in my soul, where the light burns a blinding orange. I mean, look at where we are just next week:
“Who would have thought BC would be coming to Death Valley with a 4-0 record and Clemson sits with a 2-2 mark that could have easily been 1-3 with its only victory coming against lowly SC State?”, Mike Mooneyham ponders.
So, yeah…I can’t shake that feeling of a lingering concussion. I’m not sure what time period it is. How old am I again? Who’s the coach? Up until the month of September, I was reasonably sure that the last time I had a concussion I was wearing a football helmet on the high school field. I mean, surely it isn’t 1995, right?