This is the time of year when teams reap a harvest relative to what they’ve sown for a whole season.
The final quarter of every season is about cashing in deposits months in the making. There is no more proving ground, no more tone-setting, no more earning respect.
Respect that will be earned has been earned. Lost seasons are now beyond saving. Opinions aren’t totally formed, but the framework has been laid and cannot be altered in any way.
We know who teams are. We know what strengths and weaknesses contenders and pretenders possess. We have a good idea about the options facing each team within their respective divisions, conferences, and on the national stage.
For some teams, the season’s goals were too ambitious. It just simply wasn’t meant to be. Those squads are now about developing next year’s talent to match a similar set of goals, perhaps formatted in a more feasible way.
For others, goals are within reach, but they require some help. These teams say the “handle our business” clichés with regularity, but you and I both know they will become expert scoreboard-watchers over the next few weeks. Murmurings about what might be pop up and are quickly squashed by the “realistic” fans concerned only of the task at hand.
For a select few teams, destiny is in their hands. They control what happens across the country. In this group, there are subsections that divide the power unequally.
You have the Alabama/Florida State wing that also includes Ohio State and Baylor and some select others. In that group, if you win, you’re in—or you at least go as far as you can with respect to preseason rankings that would’ve kept you out anyway in favor of other programs more propped up by preseason hype.
Clemson is in the second tier of teams. The Atlantic Division is gone, but the BCS is waiting patiently to call Clemson’s name. The ACC title is out of reach, but an 11-win season, a top-ten ranking, and a big time paycheck are well within arm’s length.
Frankly, style points mean nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch. The time to impress has come and gone. Those who have impressed still have hope. Those who have not, do not.
The Tigers will face Georgia Tech tonight with a singular task—win. It doesn’t matter how pretty. It doesn’t matter how ugly. The nation at-large knows how it feels about Clemson and, for the most part, one performance won’t change that perception.
Now, a loss might throw things out of kilter a bit. But a win of any shape, form, or fashion would satisfy the only requirement. Winning is all that matters now.
Style points are for posturing. Their accumulation is just a way to prove you are who voters want you to be in order to be included in an exclusive club.
Barring something unforeseen, a spot in the national championship game is out of the picture for the Tigers. But they are comfortably in the BCS conversation, unable to be pushed out by any outside force but fully capable of self-destructing.
Images are for preserving, not creating, now. For Clemson, preservation begins with a win—no matter how big or small—against the Yellow Jackets tonight. It continues with a token victory over The Citadel most won’t pay any attention. It ends with a trip to Columbia to exorcise some half-decade-old demons.
I’m not advocating a defensive approach. Winning is about aggression. But Clemson has something many teams in the country covet at the moment—a seat at the BCS table.
Only Clemson can screw it up now.