Clemson University

All aboard for Titletown B.C./Clemson winner heads to Jacksonville

Clemson's Phillip Merling, center, celebrates a sack with Tramaine Billie in the second quarter against Wake Forest. The Tigers will punch their ticket to the ACC Championship game in Jacksonville with a win over Boston College.
Clemson's Phillip Merling, center, celebrates a sack with Tramaine Billie in the second quarter against Wake Forest. The Tigers will punch their ticket to the ACC Championship game in Jacksonville with a win over Boston College.

CLEMSON -- C.J. Spiller has no doubt what a win over Boston College would mean for No. 15 Clemson.

"This right here could be a program changer for us," said Spiller, the Tigers star tailback. "This is why I came to Clemson."

Spiller can help the Tigers (8-2, 5-2) reach their first Atlantic Coast Conference title game with a victory Saturday night. Should the 18th-ranked Eagles (8-2, 4-2) snap their two-game losing streak, they would advance to Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 1 as Atlantic Division winners.

While Clemson has been near the top a few times in coach Tommy Bowden's nine seasons, the program hasn't come this close to a title since its last ACC crown in 1991.

Spiller said the Tigers are ready to regain their dominant ACC legacy of the 1980s and wipe out the "can't-count-on-'em" reputation they've developed lately.

"Everybody realizes what type of game this is going to be," Spiller said.

Not that it'll be easy.

Boston College may be the ACC's youngest member in its third season. But the Eagles have outlasted Clemson the past two years in overtime, including a 16-13 victory at Death Valley that was Boston College's first ACC win.

Boston College looked to be on the fast track to an ACC title and maybe more, rising to No. 2 with its 8-0 start. But losses to Florida State and Maryland have set up the Death Valley showdown.

"This is going to show the real character of the team," Boston College receiver Kevin Challenger said.

The best thing, Challenger said, is the Eagles can still win the ACC. "Other teams wish they were in our position, and we've got this shot," he said. "I love this position, winner takes all, and may the best team win."

For much of the 1980s in the ACC, that was Clemson.

The Tigers won six conference titles -- and the 1981 national championship -- between 1981-91. Coach Danny Ford produced standouts who went on to NFL success like defensive linemen brothers, William "Refrigerator" and Michael Dean Perry, defensive backs like Terry Kinard and Donnell Woolford, and runners like Kevin Mack and Terry Allen.

In 1992, Florida State entered the ACC near the peak of its success and things weren't the same at Clemson.

The Tigers had five straight seasons with 9 wins or more between 1987-91, but only three in the 16 years since. Two of those came Bowden in 2000 and 2003.

Seven years ago, the Tigers were ranked as high as No. 5 in the country at 8-0 yet closed the season 1-3. In 2003, Clemson needed to close the year with a four-game winning streak to finish 9-4 and save Bowden's job.

The Tigers seemed ready for success a year ago, opening 7-1. However, they lost four out of their final five and reinforced the notion of some that when the stakes are highest, Clemson flops.

Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper knows he'll hear that again should the team fail. He's gotten congratulations everywhere he's gone on campus and in town, and fans urge him to convert the program's latest shot at a title game. "There's a 'But, what have you done for me lately?"' Harper said.

In Harper's case, he hopes to continue a record-setting season of 26 TDs and just four interceptions. His first year as the starter has moved him right behind BC's star passer, Matt Ryan, in several ACC categories.

Neither said Saturday's matchup is Harper vs. Ryan. Still, it could go a long way to determining the ACC's player of the year. "I guess you could say that," Harper said.

Ryan was a Heisman Trophy front-runner after leading the Eagles to two touchdowns in the final 2:11 at Virginia Tech on Oct. 25. But he has thrown five interceptions in the last two defeats.

"As a quarterback, you can't turn the ball over," Ryan said. "That puts the team in a bad position. Anyway you cut it, it doesn't matter if its your fault or not, you just can't do it."

Boston College could get help from one of its top defenders this week. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar injured an ankle against Florida State. Coach Jeff Jagodzinski gave Dunbar a 50-50 chance of playing at Clemson earlier in the week. That was upgraded Thursday.

The ankle is "doing all right. Still day to day, but hopefully I can get out there and play," Dunbar said. "It will definitely be a game-time decision."

It's hard to imagine any player giving in to injuries with so much at stake Saturday night.

"We're definitely enjoying it and trying to seize the opportunity we have at hand," Clemson's Harper said.