Orange Bowl loss still haunts Clemson Tigers

West Virginia’s 70-33 demolition of Clemson in last January’s Orange Bowl was the kind of game and final score folks don’t easily forget. It was a loss that keeps on giving.

Such a monumental defeat will usually more define the loser than the winner, at least when it comes to public perception. And when you lose 70-33 in a major bowl in the only game played that night, the stench is going to stick around for a while.

As it still hovers over Death Valley in the Upstate of South Carolina, the question for Clemson is: What must the Tigers do to purge that game from the general public’s consciousness?

As competitive athletes, Clemson’s players have probably eliminated most of it from their souls, but retain enough of that taste to fuel them with further motivation to make amends for the embarrassing performance. Coach Dabo Swinney and his staff probably would like enough to remain to serve for a long time. And 70-33 is the kind of petroleum that should carry for a while.

The players, however, aren’t going to focus on that score and the images of Mountaineers darting across the goal line or the perception that WVU could have scored more given it had 63 points with 9:38 left in the THIRD quarter! They have a season to prepare for as individuals and a collective group. While they won’t dismiss it, it’s the program that has to fend off the darts. The fans, too.

Was what transpired worse than losing in the final play or two of the game? Absolutely, because it affects Clemson’s and the ACC’s reputations more than a close loss would have. Does anyone even remember how the Virginia Tech-Michigan game ended in the Sugar Bowl? The Clemson-West Virginia score is really hard to forget.

So to change perception Clemson must begin the season with a win over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Classic in Atlanta. This game presents Swinney’s squad a tremendous opportunity to give the nation something else to think about with respect to Clemson football. But it may take more than that.

A convincing win over the War Eagles isn’t a must but will help, especially since destroying Ball State and Furman – Clemson’s next two opponents – won’t move the needle one bit. And rolling through an ACC schedule that includes a game at Florida State and at home against Virginia Tech won’t change many minds, either. The ACC also needs a makeover, in part because of that Orange Bowl debacle. 

Clemson must also beat South Carolina at home to conclude the regular season and handle another SEC team in a bowl game. Going 3-0 against the vaunted SEC, reaching 10 or 11 wins and finishing in the top-10 would in some ways be a better season than a year ago, even though the Tigers won the ACC title last fall.

But this is about perception, and that 70-33 score is going to hang with Swinney’s squad all year. Broadcasters will mention it during every TV broadcast. But if Clemson can take care of business, send wide receiver Sammy Watkins to New York for the Heisman Trophy unveiling, and conclude with a higher ranking and more wins than in 2011, that’s what broadcasters will talk about during games in 2013.

Clemson’s passionate fan base waited 30 years to get back to the Orange Bowl, sight of the school’s only national championship after the Tigers dispatched Nebraska in the game in 1981. It waited two decades since its most recent ACC championship.

Now it’s going to have to wait at least another year to change the national discourse when it comes to the Tigers’ football program.