When the attention of the college football world focuses in on Death Valley in two weeks, Tajh Boyd will be right in the center of it instead of some NFL training camp.
Boyd could have been the first quarterback taken in April’s draft. He could have parlayed his Player of the Year status in the Atlantic Coast Conference, his engaging personality and his epic New Year’s Eve bowl performance into a sizable paycheck.
Six words, however, sum up why Boyd is back in a Clemson uniform this fall.
“I think we’re capable of greatness,” Boyd said this summer.
It’s been 32 years since Clemson won its lone football national championship, but the trend is looking up thanks in large part to Boyd.
Two years ago he led the Tigers to their first ACC title since 1991.
Last year they won 11 games for the first time since going 12-0 that 1981 title season. Now what?
“I feel like we have a lot of things left on the table here at Clemson and hopefully I’m here to see that out,” Boyd said. “I feel like we’ve got an opportunity to finish something special here.”
Boyd has changed the tone of Tiger football. As much as the outlook for last season was clouded by a horrific 70-33 beating by West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl, this year’s forecast is elevated by what happened last New Year’s Eve in the Georgia Dome.
Trailing Southeastern Conference power LSU by 11 points in the fourth quarter, the Tigers didn’t panic against one of the nation’s toughest defenses. Instead, Boyd led three fourth-quarter scoring drives, capped by Chandler Catanzaro’s last-second field goal for a 25-24 victory.
“The LSU game, I think, was a stepping stone for this program,” Boyd said. “It was a big boost. ... I feel we can take that next step and become that next level of a team.”
It was a stepping stone for Boyd as well. Despite losing playmaker Sammy Watkins to injury on the game’s first possession and being pounded for five sacks, Boyd completed 30-of-56 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another. The completions and attempts were career highs, and he broke the ACC’s single-season record for TD passes with 36.
But it was one fourth-and-16 play that stood out.
Trailing 24-22 with 1:39 remaining, Clemson got the ball back at its own 20 with all three timeouts left. But two incompletions and a sack had them facing do-or-die.
Everybody in the Georgia Dome knew the next play was going to DeAndre Hopkins, including the LSU defenders who had him perfectly bracketed on a post route. But with the poise of Tom Brady, Boyd threaded a perfect strike to Hopkins for 24 yards
“It didn’t look promising after the first few plays, but it became a special moment,” Boyd said after the game.
It was the kind of performance that could have triggered Boyd becoming the fourth Clemson quarterback ever drafted, and he was leaning towards leaving in the days after the bowl game. But after a few days of waffling, Boyd announced on Jan. 9 that he was sticking around for a fifth season.
“I love Clemson and love playing college football,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ready to give that up yet and I’m here to announce that I will be returning for my senior season here at Clemson. ... If somebody could tweet that for my fans it would be great right now.”
With that decision, this became a critical season for Clemson and the ACC. A year from now, the Tigers won’t have Boyd and are unlikely to have either Watkins or coveted offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
Boyd wants to make it count.
“This is my fifth year at Clemson, and now it all comes down to five months,” he said, “To me, it all comes down to embracing opportunity.”
Opportunities don’t come much bigger than the season opener against No. 5 Georgia. It’s the only opening-week matchup between top-10 teams.It’s a showdown with Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray that Boyd has been looking forward to since the day he announced his decision to return shortly after Murray did the same.
“We’re starting out with a banger against Georgia,” Boyd said. “It’s going to be exciting and I’m looking forward to that first game.”
The game is even bigger for Clemson than it is for Georgia. The Bulldogs can possibly afford to lose a non-conference opener and still have a chance to compete for an SEC title and the BCS title shot that typically comes with it. When your conference has won the previous seven BCS championships, you get that luxury.
Coming from the ACC doesn’t offer the same perks. Beating Georgia could set the Tigers up for that special season Boyd believes in. Its toughest games are perfectly staggered in weeks 1, 7 and 12. Florida State and Georgia Tech have to come through Death Valley. Thereare no matchups with presumed Coastal Division favorites Virginia Tech, Miami or North Carolina. The road is set for a potential epic showdown with hated rival South Carolina at regular season’s end.
“People talk about Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina, but I’m not worried about them, I’m concentrated on what we do,” Watkins said this summer of the three marquee games that will define Clemson’s season. “If we come out and beat Georgia – not just beat ’em but beat the mess out of ’em like we should – I don’t see no problems in getting started in the right direction. I don’t have disrespect for them or for nobody else, I just believe we can be just the kind of team we want to be, the talent is here, we know how to win. We put ourselves at that top level now We’re championship material. We’re a team that can be 11-1, 12-0, whatever it takes. That’s who we are”
With Boyd at the helm, that restored vision of greatness in Death Valley might become reality. The 6-foot-1 quarterback who once had his scholarship offer pulled from Tennessee could become the ACC’s first repeat player of the year since Florida State’s Charlie Ward (1992-93). Like Ward, Boyd might even contend for a Heisman Trophy.
But only one goal matters to Boyd and the Tigers.
“We want to come out and compete for championships,” he said. “I feel like it’s that time.”
The Tigers’ timing couldn’t be better.