A full house that filled every seat a half-hour before kickoff was at fever pitch. As the video screen featured Clemson’s pregame commute around the stadium with live on-board bus cams, it grew ever louder until every orange-clad IPTAY member was bouncing in their seats.
As the Tigers gathered at Howard’s Rock for the good luck rubs, the press box atop the south bleachers was swaying. Veteran Clemson reporters had never experienced that before.
It was all downhill from there for Clemson, however.
The pregame running down the hill was the highlight of the night for what was billed as a colossal Atlantic Coast Conference showdown between top-five teams with Heisman-caliber quarterbacks.
Clemson received the opening kickoff for the 17th consecutive game poised to set the offensive tone. Instead, it fumbled the ball away on the first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, Florida State had a touchdown and a lead it would never relinquish.
Twelve minutes in, the Seminoles had a 17-0 lead thanks to a scoop-and-run touchdown after a fumbled sack. The pregame bedlam that was Death Valley had devolved into a mausoleum atmosphere.
Before it was over, Clemson would yield the most points in the history of Death Valley in a 51-14 loss. That figure was already matched at 48 with 12:17 left in the game before the Seminoles tacked on three more for good measure and eclipse “half-a-hundred,” as the rival coach across the state would say.
The only thing that kept it from being the largest home margin of defeat in Clemson history was a Cole Stoudt quarterback sneak for a touchdown on fourth down with 13 seconds left to play.
“This was very disappointing,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney on one of the great understatements of his career. “When you’re going against a team as good as Florida State, you don’t have very much room for error. We fumbled in the beginning, had a busted play, fumbled again and before you know it it’s 17-0.”
Florida State took the crowd right out of it with the early score and a subsequent 16-play field goal drive that ate up nearly eight minutes. By the third quarter, Tiger fans were streaming for the exits.
They would not be hearing Katy Perry’s Roar in the postgame field party.
The epic showdown was an epic letdown.
“Our fans are amazing and the atmosphere tonight was amazing, but we never gave our fans a chance to get into the game,” Swinney said.
Clemson was the biggest piece to fall in a brutal weekend for top-10 teams. Six teams in the coaches’ poll went tumbling this week, including rival South Carolina at Tennessee. That would be small consolation to Tiger fans convinced this was their year.
Clemson couldn’t get out of its own way Saturday night. When it had its chances to get back in the second quarter trailing just 17-7, the Tigers started consecutive drives inside Florida State territory after an interception and a forced punt. The vaunted Tiger offense never even got as close as field goal range and came away with nothing.
By halftime it was 27-7. The only thing keeping it from being further out of hand were two forced field goals in the red zone.
The desired showdown between marquee quarterbacks never materialized. If you were sitting at home trying to figure out which one was the fifth-year senior starter and which one was the redshirt freshman, you’d have picked wrong.
Florida State’s young phenom Jameis Winston more than held it together and inserted moments of brilliance with his bevy of receivers. The hostile atmosphere that was supposed to test his inexperience was all but gone before he ever took a snap.
Winston had 242 yards passing and a couple of touchdowns by halftime.
By the time he left early in the fourth quarter, he had his first career 400-yard game (444) and fourth to surpass 300 in six career starts. The first-year starter led the Seminoles to eight third-down conversions in 12 tries against the team that previously led the nation in third-down defense.
Clemson's Tajh Boyd, on the other hand, was having a day he’d rather forget. By halftime, he already had three turnovers and the Seminoles had converted those mistakes into 17 points. Before Saturday, the Tigers had not allowed any points off turnovers and were outscoring opponents 56-0 in that category.
Boyd and his backup Stoudt shared point production for the night.
“As a leader it’s my job to go out and lead and perform and I just didn’t do that tonight,” Boyd said. “There were a couple of moments that I would like to have back.”
By the fourth quarter, the bleachers were more than 70 percent deserted and the only noise heard was the incessant chop and war chant of the Seminoles. The humiliation was complete when the Tigers were held on fourth down at the goal line directly in front of the taunting Florida State band.
The final indignity, however, was reserved for Jack Nicklaus’ grandson Nick O’Leary. The Florida State tight end nearly went 99 yards on a dump pass from Winston after the goal-line stand, but he was chased down at the Tiger 5. He obviously inherited his grandpa’s speed.
Swinney unwittingly laid the groundwork for a possible loss earlier in the week.
“The loser of this game is probably still going to be in the top 10 with a half a season to play and a lot of football and a lot of things and a lot of opportunity from a national standpoint,” he said.
With all of the top-10 carnage this week, he might be right. But safe to say Swinney didn’t envision the loser getting embarrassed on national television with College GameDay on hand to dissect every detail of the full-scale meltdown.
Clemson still has much to play for, but a championship isn’t in the cards unless Florida State turns back into a pumpkin. By all accounts Saturday night, the Seminoles look to be the dominant team the ACC has been craving.
For the shaken Tigers, it’s an uphill climb to the national respectability that was so tantalizingly close when the night started.
“This was a huge missed opportunity for our team,” Swinney said.