Ah, 2006, when my fandom still bore wisps of that New Clemson Tiger Football Fan Smell. They were ranked in the preseason! That's always exciting, right?
Of course, I know better than to be happy about such things these days. If Clemson is ranked in the preseason, you run. You run until there's reason otherwise. Maybe this is a lingering effect of the previous head coach.
Let's not count the first game against Florida Atlantic because, like all such games, it was simply a vehicle for transferring money from one school to another. An armored car shaped like a football game, if you will. Oh no. My first memory of the 2006 season is in equal measures painful and exhilarating.
Boston College. Two overtimes. Jad Dean... what...
Granted, BC blocked that extra point, and in a way that takes just enough of the edge off of it to allow you to think 'fine, good game'. Everyone played hard. Everyone's a winner! The entire Pop Warner coach spiel. You might have to struggle to remember how Clemson gave up an average of 42.8 yards per kickoff return to Jeff Smith, but Dean's dying kick, wobbling to the earth like a drunken pigeon? No forgetting that one.
It was so hard to forget, in fact, I barely remember the game that came next. The game that was arguably Clemson's biggest win: 27-20 over #9 Florida State, in Tallahassee.
Many wins followed. North Carolina. Louisiana Tech. Wake Forest, who through the obvious use of virgin sacrifices and witchcraft would go on to win the ACC. Temple, a team that may not have existed in 2006. I couldn't tell you a damn thing about these games.
Not so for October 21. Before Calvin Johnson became a Transformer and tried to sell me an Acura, he was by far Georgia Tech's best offensive player. Someone let ESPN on the campus for that silly College Game-something whatever show. And Clemson dominated. FSU was a James Davis touchdown with eight seconds left; this was a comprehensive thumping. Johnson would have caught more passes by sitting in the team bus. Now I believed.
Virginia Tech hurt, but again there were extenuating circumstances. In 2006, Florida State only thought it was back; VT had not yet left. Blacksburg was - and is - a hive full of screaming fools whose passion makes the whole state sway. As much as I wanted Clemson to win, I understood why they did not. Maryland, however, was much worse. Oh, sure, they were 6-2, but this was at home. This game - above all others - is why I'm glad they became traitors and departed. Maryland was bad enough often enough to make teams smirk at them, and good enough just occasionally enough to make those teams regret it. And of course, the final nail was a field goal.
Focus shifted then, as it usually does in seasons like this. Seasons where you tell yourself, "8-3 isn't bad, you know?" And it isn't. But given the last game, 9-3 is to 8-4 as getting an ice cream cone is to getting a vial of pure herpes.
2006 was the aberration in a long march of Clemson success against South Carolina, an era where one could roll their eyes at Steve Spurrier instead of grit their teeth. It was also the game where I would truly learn to appreciate the art of kicking. Never mind the Gamecocks' excellent rushing that day, oh no. My executioner took the form of Jad Dean's curving try, wandering off to the left as if looking for lost car keys. "Did I put them in my other coat? Oh, there they are. Through the goalposts. My bad."
I remember everything about those seconds, from where I was to how I was standing in front of the TV. I also recall going numb. Dean's kick missed the posts, but managed to travel several miles and nail me in the spinal cord.
There was a bowl game. Until I researched it for this, I didn't even know it was the Music City Bowl. I didn't care. Some guy named Jad had killed me. In 2004 and 2005, Dean was quite accurate (80% and 77% FGM, respectively). Even in 2006, he was still... pretty okay. But for me, he's always going to be That Guy That Missed, Damn It. He was the epitome of Clemson football. They're doing pretty okay, until they don't. And most of the time the don't occurs in hilarious situations (like against Maryland).
2006 may as well be another universe. While Clemson is still trying to shank me every fall Saturday, their sharpened toothbrush handle is coated with expectations. Not the die-hardiest "WAHAGSHGAJ WE WILL GO 27-0 AND WIN ALL THE THINGS" expectations; I mean the "You know, we really should be going to the Orange Bowl" expectations. Even this year, I fully expect to beat Georgia. In Georgia! Somehow.
Maybe you hate Dabo. Maybe you don't. But he's not Bowden. Back then, that was just misery. Today, it's misery, but covered with delicious sprinkles of hope. Just enough to make you smile until the game where the team manages to give up 56 points to Duke or something - but that's kind of okay. I'll manage. Stupid losses happen. They always have, and always will. And I learned to never trust any kicker ever again - a cynicism which has eased my suffering many times since.
A lesson I learned from That Guy That Missed, Damn It. Thanks, Jad. No hard feelings.
(I am still kinda mad, though.)