Perhaps the favorite cliché among the Clemson football team this season has been declaring each week’s adversary a “nameless, faceless opponent”. It has become a fixture in interview sessions all year long.
It has even become a big joke on our website and others, with those of us who cover the team on a regular basis lamenting the number of “nameless, faceless” stories written—especially in the preseason leading up to the Georgia game.
For a while, the narrative seemed plausible. Even against the Bulldogs, the Tigers had legitimate success when they played the game at a high level. It seemed that the only team who could realistically stop Clemson was Clemson, making each result predicated primarily on how the Tigers performed.
Each adversary was forced to wait for a screw-up from the team in orange and white in pursuit of unlikely victory. Every week was filled with challenges, but the biggest ones seemed to come from Clemson’s own sideline.
For the first half of the season, Clemson overwhelmed the opposition at its best and struggled to pull away at its worst. It was the perfect embodiment of the “nameless, faceless” mentality.
But “nameless, faceless” died on Saturday night.
In front of a capacity-plus crowd at Memorial Stadium, the illusion of a Clemson-centric universe was squashed by a familiar foe ascending back to a familiar place. Florida State was poised and precise, and any preconceived pretense of premiership was squeezed out of the Tigers amid the Seminole war chant.
Clemson’s players said all the right things this week. They told us how they imploded and how the mistakes allowed things to get out of hand. They told us how the next “nameless, faceless” opponent—Maryland—would be a challenge. They told us the results are still about Clemson. The head coach even said he felt his team would split a ten-game series with Florida State.
This is where I get off the bus.
I believed the logic behind this. I fell victim to the notion that it would take more than simply getting off the bus to beat this Clemson team. A team would need to be perfect, then get some help from the Tigers in order to pursue a win.
The assumption was that if both teams played perfect games, Clemson would win because the games were about Clemson, first and foremost.
With all due respect to those involved, do we honestly think Clemson is good enough—even on its best day—to make up 38 points on Florida State? How many of Clemson’s mistakes can be attributed to the Seminoles making life tough on the Tigers?
Most importantly, how can we continue to pretend Clemson is ultimately able to control its destiny in every game it plays after a performance like we saw on Saturday?
The simple answer is this: We can’t. It doesn’t make sense to put this devastating loss totally on the shoulders of Clemson’s players and coaches. Sometimes the other team is just better, and Florida State was just better on Saturday.
I think we can take it one step further. Florida State actually has a better program than Clemson does right now.
I don’t believe each meeting with Florida State would be as brutal for Clemson as that one was. In fact, I think that’s about as bad as it would get. But based on what I’ve seen this season, the Tigers would probably be lucky to win twice against a Seminole squad that is deeper and more talented at several position groups.
To be clear, I’m not down on Clemson right now. I still believe this is a darn good football program, one of the nation’s best. There are marked signs of improvement across the board.
But Clemson doesn’t control its own destiny against a program like Florida State, meaning that opponent has a name and a face Clemson must recognize.
They can go back to it for Maryland and Virginia. They can talk about it against Georgia Tech and The Citadel. Heck, I don’t care if they pull it out against the Gamecocks, just for good measure.
But as far as Florida State is concerned, the “nameless, faceless” moniker doesn’t apply. It died a slow and painful death with every touchdown, every turnover, every dejected face, and every point scored. For now, the Seminoles are the ones who can look at Clemson as one of a string of “nameless, faceless” opponents on their journey to a national title.
The death of “nameless, faceless” is a reminder the program still has growing to do. It isn’t regressing, but it isn’t what it was made out to be—yet.