Two years ago the #7 Clemson Tigers rolled into Carter-Finley Stadium with visions of a national championship dancing in their heads. After an 8-0 start, Clemson's resounding loss to N.C. State was one of a series of Clemsonings on the way to a 2-4 finish. Clemson had already Clemsoned once, losing to unranked Georgia Tech two weeks before its Raleigh faltering, so its title hopes were already shaky when it arrived in Raleigh, but if the Tigers had won out and gotten a little help, they're in the conversation. The Pack beat down zippered that conversation. The Tigers' ultimately secured an ACC Championship, but their season ended embarrassingly with an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia that saw their defense yield 70 points. Go ACC!
Last season was a rare WTF loss-less season for the Tigers, but, while they did not drop a game to any clearly inferior opponents, they did lose the two games that mattered most. They dropped games at then #4 Florida State and to their in-state SEC rival, USC-East, but capped another solid season overall with a win over LSU in the Peach Bowl. Though his teams have not quite made it to elite status, it has been a pretty good run for Yabba Dabba Dabo Swinney, with 21 wins and an ACC title over the last two seasons.
Three years ago, road losses to inferior Boston College and North Carolina teams left the Tigers barely bowl eligible at 6-6, and a bowl loss to South Florida gave Dabs a losing season and had fans calling for his head. The year before, you guessed it: Clemson had three road losses, including a pair against unranked foes, to undermine the chance of having a special season.
Behind the strong arm of dual-threat quarterback Tajh Boyd, #3 Clemson is stronger now than ever under Swinney. In fact, it's the team's first top-five ranking since 2000 when it began 8-0 (before blowing it with yet another loss to an unranked Yellow Jackets' squad). It's the first time Clemson has ranked as high as third since 1988. But there's a lot of football left for Clemson to prove that this is the year it tiptoes through the minefield unscathed, and a Thursday night road game in Raleigh seems like the perfect trap for a team with a history of road woes.
N.C. State has won its last 10 home games that kicked off after six o'clock, including a pair of wins over Florida State. And, as noted above, unranked and unspecial Pack squads--N.C. STaTe was jusT 5-5 lasT Time iT Toppled a Top Ten Tiger Team aT home--have a recent history of luring the Tigers into the dreaded trap game loss.
(Fuck yeah! Consonantal alliteration, bitches!)
Sadly, literary devices alone will not be enough for the Pack to pull the upset Thursday night. But the blueprint from 2011 remains the same: make Clemson one dimensional and don't turn the ball over.
In 2011, N.C. State held a Clemson squad that averaged 158.5 yards rushing per game (4.19 per carry) to just 34 yards on 28 attempts (1.2 per carry). Boyd was harried into a pair of picks and the Tigers turned it over a total of four times. The Pack went without a turnover en route to rattling off 30 unanswered points at one point in a 37-13 rout.
In 2012, a Clemson squad that averaged 191.5 yards rushing per game (4.23 per carry) plowed the Pack for 328 yards (5.7 per carry). Boyd and Andre Ellington both eclipsed 100 yards. Both teams turned the ball over twice. After getting down by 11 in the early going, the Tigers far surpassed the Pack's 30-point run from 2011, putting up 42 straight points to reach 62 (in just three quarters). Somehow a gassed Pack D managed to pitch a shutout in the fourth quarter, and the Pack got to within two scores with seven minutes left, but no closer in the 62-48 final. Had N.C. State held the rushing game in check and protected the ball, it's not hard to imagine a different outcome no matter how wild Boyd went through the air.
Boyd no longer has 1,000-yard rusher Ellington and 1,400-yard receiver DeAndre Hopkins at his disposal, and Hopkins' replacement, Charone Peake, is out for the year with a knee injury. Sammy Watkins remains dangerous, but he only found the end zone four times a year ago after scoring 13 times as a freshman. Granted, Clemson put up 38 points against Georgia in its opener, but so far the team is down about 25 yards per game and half a yard per play from last season.
Clemson is too good not to get at least into the upper 20s Thursday night, but Boyd, who has been picked by the Pack four times in his career, can be generous with the football. That is especially so when the offense lacks balance and he has to try to win it himself. It is certainly easier written than done, but the game plan is simple: stop the run and don't turn it over. If the Pack can do that, they can keep up with Clemson, and who knows?
Let's just go all homer with the ridiculously optimistic and off base score prediction of the week: N.C. State 34, Clemson 31.