By Ed McGranahan
These are the “money games.”
Even without championship implications, Clemson University, the athletic department, the coaching staff and individual players stand to benefit from a strong finish.
It’s not an ideal scenario, beginning on a cold night in Death Valley that probably won’t fill despite the potential return on investment for an eighth-ranked Clemson team that’s taken up permanent residence in the top 10 this season.
These ESPN Thursday night specials haven’t served as Clemson’s best showcase. Wins earlier this season at N.C. State and last year at Wake Forest give Clemson a 3-9 record.
“If I had a preference, I’d love to play on Saturday,” Coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday.
Ticket sales have lagged because much of the Clemson fan base travels hundreds of miles. Public schools in Pickens County will close early to help minimize traffic congestion, but parking at Clemson won’t be available until 2 p.m.
“You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” Swinney said. “There are always negatives people can point out, but my job is to win the game.”
While, a prime time, national television audience gets a fresh look at a school in transition with Dr. Jim Clements named this week to succeed Jim Barker as Clemson president, there are other potentially more tangible advantages.
Three more wins could secure Clemson an at-large invitation to a plum bowl regardless of what happens with the ACC champion and provide an estimated $1 million bump in conference revenue. A couple scenarios have been predicted should Florida State run the table and earn a spot in the national title game against Alabama, Ohio State or Baylor. One puts Clemson in the Orange Bowl against Oregon, another has Clemson and Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney stands to earn bonuses of $30,000 to $175,000 with 10 or more wins and a bowl appearance. And players like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins could enhance their reputations with pro scouts.
It gives them all something to ponder.
“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t,” Boyd said. “Like coach always says, the more you win the warmer it gets.”
Within reach for Boyd are more records. He already has 50 school standards for offense and scoring and needs seven pass completions to pass Charlie Whitehurst’s career mark for 51, and with three more touchdown passes he would become the ACC’s career leader surpassing Phil Rivers.
All of it would be hollow without victory.
“You want to go out here and finish as strong as you possibly can,” Boyd said. “We just want to do something special as a program.”
In the early conversations for Heisman Trophy, he has been named semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award, semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. A strong finish could advance his campaign for post-season consideration.
“I want to be remembered as a finisher,” he said. “That’s all we can do as a program is finish,” Boyd said.
His 397 passing yards and two touchdowns helped put the finishing touches on a 47-31 win over Georgia Tech last year. And while it would require Virginia Tech and Miami to stumble the final three weeks, Georgia Tech needs the win to remain in contention for the ACC’s Coastal Division title.
“This is when it matters,” said Swinney. “It matters big time how we play, how we finish because this is when people really separate in
“Not many teams that started in the top 10 stayed in the top 10. Our team has kind of hung in there and had a really good season to this
point, but we’re going to be judged on how we finish.
“Everybody knows the opportunity,” he said. “Anything can happen. Who knows?”
Temperatures may dip to the low 40’s Thursday night.
“As long as I can feel my fingers, I’m fine,” said Boyd, recalling a particularly chilly high school game where it was a challenge.
“One of my last games at home,” he said, “I’m going to try to enjoy it.”
And that could be worth money.