On Saturday, Clemson earned an emphatic shutout victory over Syracuse. Media mouthpieces and keyboard quarterbacks were impressed, and the outlook on the Tigers’ entire season changed in the national conversation.
The emphatic shutout has become a staple of elite Clemson seasons, assuming this year ends as well as 2015 did. (News flash: There isn’t a prognosticator anywhere predicting otherwise at this point.)
Last year, that type of victory came against Miami—a 58-0 bludgeoning that became Clemson’s triumphant entry into the College Football Playoff’s top four. This year, the Tigers already had the benefit of the doubt with a second-place ranking heading into the matchup with the Orange. However, the 54-0 win solidified and strengthened the opinions of outsiders concerning the program.
The tendency will be to link both of those victories as similar results that came from similar processes. That may be true. Still, it feels like the responses to those results were diametrically opposed to one another.
The Miami game from last year was a road game. It was against a decent team that boasted players respected on a national level. It came at a time when people still needed Clemson to prove itself in order to vault it into rarified air. That’s why the result was so impactful. It was a “wow” moment for the Tigers, both for national spectators and the local fan base.
When Clemson beat Syracuse on Saturday, the reaction didn’t seem to be “wow” this time. Instead, it was more of a “Finally!” feeling that reverberated through Memorial Stadium.
Finally, Clemson executed brilliantly in all three phases of the game. Finally, Clemson’s offense appeared to show potency in a well-rounded way that included the downfield passing game and short-yardage running. Finally, Clemson was able to combine a dominant performance on that side of the ball with an identity-stripping, dream-crushing defensive showing that left a crater where Dino Babers’ nationally-acclaimed, Baylor-inspired offense used to be.
Perhaps the reason last week’s win was met with more of a ho-hum attitude is the caliber of opponent. Perhaps it’s the lofty point spread that portended a blowout anyway. Perhaps it’s more related to the friendly venue in which the game was played.
Maybe this is something bigger, though. Maybe it’s a reaction to a new normal for Clemson football. The definition of the game is no longer found in a win or a loss. Instead, it’s about the number of style points the Tigers can pile up in defeating the opposition. Only winning with a particular amount of flair and flash makes a win acceptable right now in the eyes of many.
It’s just interesting to see the different reactions to two 50-plus-point shutouts against conference opponents just 14 regular season games apart. Above all else, the satisfaction (and not bewilderment) at such a resounding win indicate something important about Clemson’s fan base: It has fully embraced this era of excellence, as brief or expansive as it may be.
A second straight Atlantic Division title is up for grabs on Saturday against Pittsburgh. A win is expected, and it is highly likely to occur, but the future after that division crown is earned is still uncertain. Nothing should be taken for granted. Much like the emphatic shutout, championships—no matter how big or small in the grand scheme of things—don’t just happen all the time.