The seniors on Clemson’s 10-2 and 14th-ranked football team get one more chance to tack a signature victory on their careers tomorrow against No. 8 LSU (10-2) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. And what a career it has been.
The four-year seniors this year were members of the draft class of 2009 – which also includes redshirt junior quarterback Tajh Boyd – and were originally dubbed the “Dandy Dozen” because there were only 12 of them. The small class can be attributed to the volatile state of Clemson football during those players’ senior season in high school. During the 2008 football season, former head coach Tommy Bowden resigned after a 3-3 start. Dabo Swinney took over and led the team to a 4-2 finish to the regular season before a 26-21 loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
Swinney, of course, was hired as the team’s head coach following the season, but Bowden’s departure and Swinney’s interim status likely had an impact on the size of the 2009 class.
Swinney appreciates the players like defensive lineman Malliciah Goodman, who joined him at a Friday bowl news conference, made in honoring their commitments to Clemson despite the tumult.
“But I remember Malliciah because Malliciah was actually – I personally recruited Malliciah, and he was actually committed, and all this stuff happened and I end up getting the job,” Swinney said. “I’m very thankful for those guys for choosing to stick with us. I mean, they’re all very special.”
Others listed as seniors this year were already on campus for that tough 2008 season, which began with a 34-10 loss to Alabama in the Georgia Dome, where Clemson will face LSU on Monday. Starting center Dalton Freeman was one such player, having redshirted during his first year in the Tigers’ program.
Freeman also joined Swinney on Friday, and the coach also showed gratitude for Freeman’s choice to remain an integral part of the team.
“And Dalton was one of those guys that was stuck here and came here for something else, and now he’s going to have to look up and play for this Swinney guy,” he said.
In addition to being the site for Freeman’s first and last game as a Tiger, the Georgia Dome will host the bookends to the 2012 season for Clemson, which opened the campaign with a 26-19 win over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. Fittingly, another member of the 2008 class that witnessed the thrashing against Alabama was the star of that game, as Andre Ellington ripped off 228 rushing yards against yet another set of Tigers.
Unfortunately for this set of seniors, that game was a rare bright spot against SEC opposition during their college careers. The ACC version of the Tigers is 3-5 against SEC foes since the start of the 2008 season, and that included four straight losses to rival South Carolina. Two of the three wins came against an Auburn program that has spiraled downward quickly since its 2010 national championship; the other came over the Gamecocks in 2008.
Still, Freeman doesn’t place added weight on the Chick-fil-A Bowl just because Clemson’s opponent is an SEC power.
“At the end of the day, football is still football,” Freeman said. “We play some great competition in the ACC. We also play South Carolina, Auburn, other teams in the SEC. So we’re used to seeing this kind of stuff. I don’t think SEC varies that much in style from the ACC. It’s all great competition.”
However, there can be no denying the statement that a win over LSU would make for Clemson and how big of a boost it would be for a program so heavy in freshmen and sophomores. With the possibility that Boyd could come back next year to lead a Clemson team that has won 10 games in back to back seasons, the momentum gained from a Chick-fil-A Bowl win could vault Swinney’s team to another level.
Swinney noted that his team has already played a tough schedule that included three SEC foes with another coming at the start of next season when Georgia pays a visit to Death Valley. He also recognized the chance his team has on Monday.
“So we might as well be in the SEC. Heck, that’s a pretty full schedule right there,” he said. “But we’re excited about having that opportunity. And if you want to be the best, you want to put yourself in those situations to play the teams that are considered the best.”
Win or lose, the Clemson redshirt seniors will see their career start and end in the Georgia Dome against SEC opponents. All of the Tiger seniors will see their final season begin and finish that way.
And the legacy they’ve left will be remarkable no matter the game’s result, but the chance remains to punctuate it emphatically, Swinney said.
“So four years later it’s very fulfilling to see the progress that we’ve made. And these guys deserve all the credit, because you can be a great coach, you can do whatever,” he said. “You can have a lot of knowledge. But if the guys don’t believe, you have no chance. And these guys have chosen to believe in our program. ... And so 11 wins in Clemson history has been a pretty rare thing. 1948, 1978, 1981. And so to be at the doorstep of that for the second year in a row is pretty special.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
No. 14 Clemson (10-2) vs. No. 8 LSU (10-2)
Monday, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
• Jeremy Timmerman will be covering the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome. See stories in the Aiken Standard and on www.aikenstandard.com Tuesday and Wednesday, and follow @ASJTimm on Twitter before and during the game for live tweets.