“There is something in these hills.” It’s a common phrase for Clemson, long associated with that small-town family atmosphere found in the Upstate. A feeling that is easily understood once you arrive, but is often dismissed by the uninitiated.
In these hills, there is history. That history comes from names and traditions: Riggs and Howard, Howard’s Rock and Death Valley, even Tiger Rag and the Alma Mater. But this history also has ghosts like Danny Ford and 1981, a national championship season by the greatest coach in Clemson history.
It is a name and a time that Clemson has been chasing for 35 years. Despite what coaches and players may say, the fans remember. Clemson fans reminisce wistfully about a time when Clemson was a national power. Each new coach has had one goal in the mind of the fans; be Danny Ford. It is a challenge that none have approached until now.
But now things get harder. 2015 was, frankly, unexpected. 2016 was supposed to be Clemson’s season of triumph. The season where all of the pieces come together for a national championship. We talked about it as early as 2013 with the potential of Deshaun Watson, #WRU, and a defensive line that would eat bricks for lunch and chicken for a snack.
Yet despite these expectations, Clemson may be a less-complete team than in 2015. Yes, the offense will be fantastic, even historically good, but the defense has several holes. The magnificent depth on the defensive line is gone, especially on the ends. The cornerbacks are a concern and there are new faces at safety. Oh, and are we actually going to fix special teams this year? I’ll wait and hold my breath.
All of these areas may be real concerns, but the expectations game rolls on. Many have picked Clemson to repeat as ACC champs; a few have even picked the Tigers to be national champs. Yet everyone ignores a reloaded FSU or even a midweek trip down to Atlanta against Georgia Tech. 10-2 or even 11-1 would be a very good season, but expectations suggest it would be nothing short of failure.
And those expectations are where the danger comes. Last year we enjoyed the journey. Yes, the ending sucked, but for 14 games and 49 minutes Clemson was the best team in the country. That goal line stand against Notre Dame, Wayne Gallman’s run to seal the win against Florida State, even the entire beatdown of Oklahoma. We’ll remember those much the same way we remember 1981 and beating Georgia and Nebraska.
But now the expectations may be too great. The demand for a championship may have surpassed reality and created a time where an 11-1 season is ultimately a failure, not because Clemson didn’t win a national title, but because we all expected it regardless of ability.
That is the danger - the danger that could engulf fans and, ultimately, the program. If we constantly demand a championship, then we risk being rarely satisfied with the play of our Clemson Tigers.
Enjoy the journey in 2016. Spot the damn ball.