Clemson, an upset on its way to happening, is ranked No. 9 in the country, is on speaking terms with several bowl games and has clinched at least a tie for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. The Tigers accomplished all this without having to defeat many teams of particular merit or change their personality, which threatens at any moment to throw away these luxuries out of sheer nonchalance.
This season was at one time thought to be a national championship possibility for Clemson (8-1), until the Tigers showed a nagging lack of conviction in their victories and an unexpected habit of falling behind. They paid for those traits when they trailed North Carolina State by 30 points, their one loss of the season, which jeopardized a major bowl. But the Tigers can win the ACC outright when they host Maryland in their last league game Saturday, and the result is that no one knows what to make of a team that is consistently inconsistent.
"We're not the most enthused group of guys," defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry said.
That Clemson is talented and headed for a bowl game is inarguable. Coveys of running backs such as Terry Allen and Wesley McFadden, the leaders in the ACC, make the Tigers one of the top rushing teams in the country, while monstrous defenders like Perry, the career ACC leader in sacks, give them a defense ranked second in the nation.
But a normal week for this sleepy-eyed team is to meander through at three-quarters speed, then do just enough to get by in the last minutes. While the Tigers are still winning, they are also trying to solve that curious lack of ruthlessness. "I can't explain it and the coaches can't," Perry said. "It's just our personality."
They managed an early defeat of Georgia on a last-second field goal, perhaps their best victory of the season. But then they lost to N.C. State by 30-28 and woke up to beat Wake Forest by 31-17 after scoring just 10 points in the first half, only to barely escape North Carolina, 13-10, last week, again on a last-second field goal. Clemson is becoming known as a team that lacks killer instinct, and even Coach Danny Ford admitted it this week, in graphic terms.
"Killer instinct to me is cutting their throats and sucking their blood," Ford said. "That's what I call kill or be killed. I haven't seen that all year. But let me rephrase that. We haven't had the type of team that just jumps on you and puts you away."
Why Clemson has been so lackadaisical despite its talent probably has to do with preseason expectations taken for granted and a schedule that invited lethargy. The Tigers' early nonconference opponents included teams such as Western Carolina, and they got through that segment with predictably lopsided scores. But their games in a not particularly strong conference proved strangely difficult.
Clemson has benefited from having eight of 11 games at home. But Maryland is the last, and the Tigers' final game comes against No. 14 South Carolina on the road on Nov. 21. Having played only one ranked team all season, this is a game they could lose, and they know it.
"Maybe we were lulled to sleep by the schedule," offensive lineman John Phillips said. "But we're awake now."
Clearly, these last two games will be telling. The Tigers hope their trials have provided them with a valuable asset in the most important part of the season: a resilience that comes from proving yourself in the clutch.
That was displayed in the North Carolina game. Tied, 10-10, the Tigers took possession on their 20 with 7:38 to go and put together a drive entirely on the ground that used seven minutes. Along the way they converted on a fourth and two, before David Treadwell kicked his 30-yarder with 32 seconds left.
That they needed to make such a long drive, and had to convert a fourth down, keeps oberservers, pollsters and bowl scouts dubious. Even Ford. "I'm still thinking we should have punted," he joked. But methods do not matter so long as the Tigers win, and the bigger bowls can't ignore a 10-1 record.
"I don't know what makes people perform in the clutch," Ford said. "I'm just glad they do. Why can't they do it all day? I don't know if anyone can. But if the worst thing they are is just good enough to win, that's not all bad."
The Tigers are becoming used to this heart-attack kind of season, and they even tailor themselves to it in some respects, making up for what they lack in concentration with skills such as a superb kicking game and reliable backfield. Never a team to subscribe to conventional doctrine, they have fashioned a winning record despite lacking the typical attributes of success.
The Tigers have four backs who average four yards or better a carry. Allen is the leader with 765 yards, followed by redshirt freshman McFadden with 601. Fullback Tracy Johnson has 439 yards and has averaged 4.8 per carry. The emergence of that backfield came out of necessity, with Terrence Flagler and Kenny Flowers' Tigers days completed en route to the NFL draft.
"Running backs kind of come in clusters here," Phillips said.
Perhaps most importantly, the Tigers are ranked in virtually every aspect of the kicking game, which according to Ford is good enough to win them three or four games. Donnell Woolford is the leading punt returner in the nation, averaging 17.7 yards, and Joe Henderson is second in the country in kickoff returns, averaging 30 yards. Treadwell leads the country with an average of two field goals a game, and is virtually infallible from 30 yards in.
"We just have a unique way of winning," Treadwell said. "I don't know why we wait until the last minute. But that's all right. I practice for it."
Clearly, a major part of Clemson's ability to win late is Treadwell and what Ford calls "that skinny little leg." The senior electrical engineering major from Jacksonville who walked on five years ago has won six games on last-second field goals in the past two seasons, a telling statistic.
"He was just a skinny little kicker out there with a skinny leg," Ford said. "I don't know why he walked into our office, but I'm thankful he did."
The result is that Treadwell has become almost impervious to choking. When the Tigers drove against North Carolina, he calmly warmed up his leg by practicing in the kicking net on the sidelines. Every once in a while, he checked his teammates' progress. It does not bother him that Clemson puts him in that position so frequently.
"I don't think anyone is going to look back at the end of the season and say Clemson only won by one point here or there," he said. "That's just what we do, win."
So long as they continue to do so, Ford is not unduly worried. In fact, one of the most dangerous teams is one that plays its best in the fourth quarter, and that's what the Tigers have done.
"The other team says, 'Uh-oh, here they go,' " Ford said. "Does it matter when you win? It never has to me."