The term “trap game” really shouldn’t be in a Clemson fan’s vocabulary anymore.
Sure, if you’re a college football fan—or a fan of any sport, really—you know such games exist, and you know what they look like. A team coming off of an emotional win or loss faces a challenge that appears much more manageable to the naked eye, often times on the road. The opponent isn’t that talented, the venue isn’t that intimidating, and the task at hand seems like it will take care of itself.
Each week in college football, we see evidence of this phenomenon. Just last week, Baylor trailed by two touchdowns at Iowa State in the fourth quarter before winning on a last-second field goal. These are the kinds of games that epitomize the wacky post-September college football landscape.
Clemson used to lose so-called “trap games” all the time. In fact, some people coined a term for it (that we won’t mention here, obviously). Even though the Tigers are perhaps the most consistent program in the country, fans and pundits can’t help themselves. Games like Friday’s tilt with Boston College are still cause for consternation in some quarters.
How perilous have these contests been for Clemson, though? Even though the Tigers generally win these so-called “trap games”, do they perform as expected? Or is there some sort of hangover evident over time? More importantly, should fans be concerned about facing the Eagles a week after knocking off Louisville?
These are all important questions, and we need some answers. I’ve identified seven of these “trap games” since Dabo Swinney hit the proverbial reset button prior to the 2011 season. Let’s see how real this threat is:
Opponent: Boston College (home)
Point Spread: Clemson -21
Result: Win 36-14
This game followed one of the most iconic strings of victories in Clemson history. The trifecta of wins over ranked opponents Auburn, Florida State, and Virginia Tech is still immortalized in the football facility. The Tigers came back from Blacksburg to face an Eagles squad that was destined for a ten-loss season. Tajh Boyd was injured during the game, which halted the momentum of a Clemson offense that leapt out to a 17-0 lead in the first 11 minutes. No sleepwalking in this one for the Tigers.
Opponent: N.C. State (road)
Point Spread: Clemson -7
Result: N.C. State 37-13
This was the final stand for those who believed in “the term which must not be named”. A week after a last-second field goal gave Clemson the Atlantic Division title in a nip-and-tuck matchup with Wake Forest, the Wolfpack destroyed the Tigers in Raleigh. Beginning in the second quarter, N.C. State scored 30 unanswered points and led 37-6 at one point. Clemson definitely fell into a trap in this one.
Opponent: Boston College (road)
Point Spread: Clemson -7
Result: Clemson 45-31
After blowing a two-score lead in Tallahassee and losing by double digits to its primary division rival, the Tigers were tasked with slowing down a suddenly potent BC offense in Chestnut Hill. The game was dicey in the first half, as the Eagles held the lead on two different occasions before a touchdown late in the second quarter gave Clemson a lead it would not relinquish. DeAndre Hopkins had a record-setting day catching the football, and he needed it. It seems clear there was a lethargic start to this game against a 2-10 team.
Opponent: Maryland (road)
Point Spread: Clemson -16
Result: Clemson 40-27
The week before the Tigers trekked to College Park for the final time as a conference foe, Florida State pasted them at home in one of the most hyped games in program history. The emotional hangover from that crushing defeat lingered for a bit, as the Clemson offense really never got rolling until the fourth quarter, when the Tigers scored 21 points en route to a 13-point victory. Until then, a 19-13 spread did little to inspire onlookers. The rust hung on for a little longer than expected in this one.
Opponent: North Carolina (home)
Point Spread: Clemson -14
Result: Clemson 50-35
In Deshaun Watson’s first career start, the Tigers’ offense blazed out of the gate after a slip in coverage and a late fumble led to a 23-17 overtime loss in Tallahassee. The Tar Heels were playing catch-up the whole game, as Clemson scored the first 20 points and led 22-7 at halftime. Even once UNC’s offense found its stride, the Tigers maintained a comfortable margin. Watson was particularly impressive as the starter under center and remained in that role for the remainder of the season.
Opponent: Georgia Tech (home)
Point Spread: Clemson -7
Result: Clemson 43-24
After a stop on a two-point conversion attempt gave Clemson a massive 24-22 win over Notre Dame in front of the nation, the Tigers had to turn around and face Paul Johnson’s option offense the very next week. Dabo Swinney’s bunch took the Yellow Jackets behind the woodshed early, soaring to a 26-3 lead in the game’s first 16:01 and putting the kibosh on that vaunted option attack. For much of the nation, this is where Clemson’s new, more consistent program showcased itself for the very first time.
Opponent: Syracuse (road)
Point Spread: Clemson -29
Result: Clemson 37-27
With the Atlantic Division crown sewn up by a ten-point win over Florida State, the Tigers went to Syracuse with nothing to gain. The opposite was true for the Orange and Scott Shafer, who was fired as head coach shortly thereafter. A quirky offense kept the pressure on Clemson and forced the Tigers to keep the pedal pressed to the floor for the entire game. The outsized spread proved too much for the visitors, but the win was really never in doubt.
Since 2011, Clemson is 6-1 in these “trap game” scenarios and 4-3 against the spread. Two of those covers are by a single point, however, so taking the Tigers to cover against the Eagles might be perilous. Losing the game, though? Don’t sweat it, even if things don’t look quite right for a little while.