on January 1, 2009 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Stakes are high for Tigers in Gator Bowl

Since college football, unlike every other major and minor sport, lacks a true system for determining a champion on the field – sorry, I just can’t seem to leave this topic alone – it’s often unclear what exactly is at stake for a given bowl game.

Sure, half of the teams get to close out their season with wins and go into the offseason feeling good about themselves, and of course, everybody gets a handsome payday – which I suppose is the real point of the bowl system – but often there’s actually very little on the line for most of these games.

Of course, there’s momentum and a boost in recruiting to be gained, but often those are more perception than reality, as evidenced by Clemson’s loss to a mediocre Auburn team in last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl being followed by a recruiting class ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, a preseason top-ten ranking and an overwhelming nod to win the ACC.

However, in the case of this year’s Gator Bowl, whether it’s perception or otherwise, I believe there’s plenty at stake and plenty to be gained for the Tigers this afternoon.

For one thing, Clemson’s senior class has been one of the most prolific in school history – Cullen Harper holds the school record for passing touchdowns in a season, James Davis has a shot to become the Tigers’ all-time leading rusher and touchdown scorer, and Aaron Kelly is already the ACC’s career leader in receptions – and a bowl win would go a long way towards cementing their legacy as a group that helped take the program to another level. For those three and a number of other guys that have had stellar careers at Clemson, like Michael Hamlin and Tyler Grisham, a win over Nebraska would be a great way to finish off their time in the orange and white.

And while the outcome of bowl games often have little immediate impact on recruiting, this game seems to be crucial to what kind of haul the Tigers will bring in this year.

Clemson only holds nine public verbal commitments at this time, with just more than a month left until National Signing Day. And while the product on the field has been markedly improved since Tommy Bowden’s resignation on Oct. 13, Dabo Swinney and company are still struggling to get recruiting momentum back on track – as the Tigers have garnered just one verbal commitment, from four-star safety Jonathan Meeks, since Bowden’s departure.

By comparison, while Clemson has nine commitments, South Carolina – which the Tigers trounced 31-14 in their regular-season finale – already has 26 prospects on board, many of them who had once been either considering or committed to Clemson.

But with Swinney still looking to add at least a dozen more names to the 2009 recruiting haul – and in particular, names that are difference-makers and not just spot-fillers – beating the Cornhuskers would seem to be crucial to achieving that goal.

And in turn, while one recruiting class never makes or breaks a program, this one seems to be of particular importance, not just as Swinney’s first but also in light of the number of significant contributors the Tigers will lose – including two starting safeties, two starting receivers, two defensive tackles and at least one, if not both, members of the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ running back tandem.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this game is a big one for Dabo as he heads into his first offseason as head coach. Sure, he was able to turn around a team that was playing with little inspiration and seemed to be divided, win four of the last five games and get the Tigers into a New Year’s Day bowl – all impressive, if not almost impossible, accomplishments. But you have to imagine the Tigers are taking quite a beating on the recruiting trail after replacing Bowden with a guy that had no previous experience as a head coach, or even as a coordinator, and it shows in the numbers.

On top of that, Clemson obviously made a coaching change in order to take the program to the next level, not simply to maintain the status quo.

For all he has done thus far, Swinney still has a lot to prove. And while momentum can be a fickle thing, clearly a Gator Bowl win would be giant leap in the right direction.

Taking it a step further, with all of the aforementioned on the line against Nebraska, a poor showing in the game would likely be a major setback for the immediate future of the program and make for a very long offseason in Tigertown.