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Posted: Sunday August 31, 2008 1:17AM; Updated: Sunday August 31, 2008 12:02PM
Cory McCartney Cory McCartney >

Clemson fails to capitalize ... again

Story Highlights
  • Given a golden opportunity to make a statement, Clemson once again failed
  • Not only is the loss bad for the school, but for the ACC as well
  • Saturday's win for Alabama may have officially ushered in The Saban Era
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Cullen Harper was sacked three times and failed to find the end zone through the air Saturday.
Cullen Harper was sacked three times and failed to find the end zone through the air Saturday.
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ATLANTA -- Another year, another disappointment for Clemson.

Chants of "SEC, SEC," rained down from the Alabama fans as the Crimson Tide wound down the clock on a 34-10 win over the Tigers. As Clemson fans sought out exits, a rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama followed them out the door.

The Tigers entered the Georgia Dome with hype, talent and the weight of knowing they were playing for the respect of a beleaguered conference. But in the end, all they got was exactly what we've come to expect from this team.

Except that it's never happened quite like this.

Saturday was the latest example of the team's inability to reach that next level that has eluded it under Tommy Bowden. But ultimately, this one may be the toughest to take.

"We got whipped about every way you can get whipped," Bowden said. "Haven't been physically beaten that bad in three years."

The vaunted Thunder and Lightning duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who combined for 1,832 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago, rushed for 20 yards against a swarming Alabama defense that spent so much time in Clemson's backfield that Bowden should charge them rent.

"They came in here fired up, they read a whole lot about me and James," Spiller said. "They came in and were in the right gaps at the right time. They were more physical than we were tonight."

Clemson's Cullen Harper, a budding star after passing for 2,991 yards and 27 scores as a junior, was 20-of-34 for 188 yards and no TDs and was sacked three times as the pass rush kept him from finding any rhythm with his receivers.

"Maybe we needed a wake-up call," Harper said. "We'll have to keep working hard this week and correct our mistakes."

Some wake-up call. It's only the opener and already Clemson has failed to meet expectations. The Tigers came in against No. 24 Alabama ranked ninth, their highest preseason ranking in 17 years, but instead it will be just the latest in a string of heartbreaking defeats.

Add it to 2005, when the Tigers lost 16-13 to Boston College in overtime and 10-9 at Georgia Tech; a win in either would have landed them in the ACC title game; 2006, as they turned a 7-1 record and a No. 10 ranking into a 1-4 finish; and 2007, where they rebounded from back-to-back losses to pull within a win over the Eagles of making it to Jacksonville, only to have it torn from their grasp.

Clemson still has an ACC title to play for, but let's not kid ourselves here: More was expected from the Tigers than merely staying in the conference hunt. This is a team that needed to remain in the national title talk until at least October, for the sake of the program and conference. Losing to a team that was picked to finish third in its own division in the SEC is the worst possible scenario for both.

The ACC hasn't won a BCS game since Florida State beat Virginia Tech for the 1999 national championship and it hasn't had a team finish in the top five in the polls since 2000. The expansion that began with the 2005 season was supposed to usher in a new level of dominance, but perennial powers Florida State and Miami have struggled and the conference has failed to earn a second BCS berth and is 0-3 in its guaranteed games.

The ACC's reputation won't be repaired with one game or one season, but this team could have gone a long way to starting the process, or at least reminding people that this isn't a basketball conference with a football problem. But what we saw against Alabama simply didn't look like a team worthy of the hype, let alone standing as flag bearer for a beleaguered conference.

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