Clemson University

Clemson football team deals with stark reality of tumultuous season

Clemson's Michael Palmer sits dejectedly as time runs out during the Tigers' 41-27 loss to Florida State on Saturday.
Clemson's Michael Palmer sits dejectedly as time runs out during the Tigers' 41-27 loss to Florida State on Saturday.

CLEMSON -- Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- the five stages of grief a psychiatrist once famously theorized follow any form of catastrophic personal loss.

It goes without argument Clemson's football team dealt with the depression stage first, admittedly taking weeks to mentally recover from the season-opening Alabama debacle, if it ever did.

The Tigers moved beyond denial after the Maryland loss, then resorted to anger that led to coach Tommy Bowden's pre-emptive resignation.

Interim coach Dabo Swinney's last bargaining chip might have been bowl eligibility, for which their outlook appears bleak.

So, perhaps the most striking aspect from its 41-27 defeat Saturday at Florida State has been the lack of emotion expressed in the aftermath by players and coaches alike -- regardless of the emotion.

Acceptance? How the Tigers handle these last three weeks of the regular season will tell the tale.

"I think the team is very discouraged," senior running back James Davis said. "A lot of guys have never been in this situation before. They probably don't know what to expect or do right now."

Junior tight end Michael Palmer said Monday that Clemson must live with reality, and the reality does not get more blunt than the facts behind its noon game Saturday against Duke.

The Tigers (4-5, 2-4 ACC) share the same overall record as the Blue Devils (4-5, 1-4), yet even the league's perennial doormat is closer to bowl eligibility.

Duke needs just two more wins to Clemson's three because two of the Tigers' victories came against Football Championship Subdivision opponents.

It is the first time since 1998 -- Tommy West's final year before being replaced by Bowden -- that Clemson has a record equal to or worse than Duke's when the two teams played (Duke was 3-4, Clemson 2-5).

"You never think you'll be needing a bowl game, and then you've got to play Duke, possibly a team just as good as us," Davis said.

"You never think you'd be looking at it that way."

That perspective has changed in dual measure to Duke becoming formidable under first-year coach David Cutcliffe, who has already guided the Blue Devils to as many wins as they had the previous four seasons combined.

Cutcliffe said this week that Duke's morale is high, a stark contrast to what the Tigers are coping with down the stretch.

Junior guard Thomas Austin went to dinner with several linemen Sunday night and said they were in good spirits, but added the gradual erosion of Clemson's season has clearly worn on everybody.

"What can you do?" Austin said. "You prepare this week like you do every week. We're going to fight for our lives, try to win these last three games and see what happens. It's definitely frustrating, but we can't really control these past nine games."

Per routine, Swinney met with the team's seniors Monday, but he also scheduled a handful of one-on-ones in order to gauge team morale.

Swinney said he was encouraged by the responses received and thinks players still by in to the belief worthwhile goals remain on the table.

"It's just been a tough year, a crazy year as far as how things have shaped up around here," senior receiver Aaron Kelly said.

"But we're still getting a lot of support from our fans, and people aren't pointing fingers at each other or bickering or anything like that.

So we just have to go out and try to finish the last three games the best we can."

• Who: Duke Blue Devils (4-5, 1-4 ACC) at Clemson Tigers (4-5, 2-4)

• Time: Noon

• TV: Raycom Network

• Radio: WRHI-AM (1340)