As much disdain as Clemson fans have for John Swofford, you have to give him credit for one thing. He has learned how to protect his top football commodities.
It started with rivalry weekend. For years, the SEC owned the year-end rivalry games against its ACC counterparts. Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech—all of those matchups were trending heavily toward the SEC, reinforcing long-held stereotypes about both the superiority of that league and the inferiority of the ACC.
To combat those negative forces, Swofford pulled a copycat move by replicating an initiative the SEC started years earlier: He protected his teams with cupcake games—either inside or outside the league—the week prior to those occurring after Thanksgiving. Since that change was implemented, the ACC has turned the tables in those rivalries, although there are other factors that have influenced these outcomes, as well.
The other major change Swofford made to protect its top commodities was to isolate and feature the best matchup in the conference every season. For years, Mike Slive (and now his successor, Greg Sankey) have done this very thing with the Alabama-LSU contest. Both teams have a bye week before the matchup, which is generally nationally televised and hyped up as perhaps the biggest game of the season.
From a media perspective, this is a genius move. Removing both teams from the slate of games creates an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” reaction among fans. Anticipation builds leading into the game, viewership increases, and the nation is captivated. That’s how a visual abomination like the Tigers and the Tide gets reprised in the national title game.
Clemson and Florida State has become that type of game for the ACC. While they rest in Bama and on the Bayou this week, preparing for their own colossal showdown at the start of November, the Tigers will invade Tallahassee to tangle with the Seminoles. Both teams had a bye week beforehand, and the notoriety of both teams has created a buzz that arguably surpasses that of Alabama-LSU for the time being.
Not only does the bye week allow for viewers to gear up, it also allows the teams to heal so both squads are at full strength for the matchup. At least, that’s the working theory behind it.
It appears one team will benefit from that aspect more than the other this time. It doesn’t take a leap of faith to assume Wayne Gallman might not have been ready to perform last week due to a concussion suffered against NC State. All appearances are that Gallman will be cleared for full contact and available to fully participate in Saturday’s contest. While he’s deployed in the backfield, Austin Bryant will likely continue to play more snaps at defensive end.
On the other sideline, a major injury lingers through the bye week. Florida State safety Derwin James continues to struggle through rehab after knee surgery addressed an issue that originally surfaced mid-September, and the Seminoles have officially ruled their best defensive back out against the Tigers.
From Clemson’s perspective, Swofford got what he wanted—a healthy team primed to showcase the best version of itself in front of the watching eyes of the nation. Florida State, unfortunately for the league, doesn’t have that luxury. James is one of the Noles’ most important pieces, and even a well-placed bye week couldn’t bring him back to full health.
Advantage Clemson, and advantage ACC, honestly. Even with James out, the result on the field should be entertaining—and it needs to be. The league put all of its eggs in this basket before the season, and now it’s time to see if such an investment was worthwhile.