So close, yet so far away

Clemson, which capped a season of "what-ifs" with its only decisive defeat of the season in a 29-7 loss to rival South Carolina on Saturday night, found itself on the cusp of a special season numerous times.

But the Tigers kept coming up just short.

How short?

Consider this: While Clemson finished with a 4-4 record in the ACC's Atlantic Division and Florida State was 6-2, had Clemson defeated the Seminoles on Nov. 13, the Tigers would be playing in the ACC Championship Game for a second straight year.

A Clemson win over Florida State would have led to a four-way tie at 5-3 between Clemson, Florida State, Maryland and N.C. State, and the Tigers would have won the tiebreaker with wins over the other three.

Clemson lost at Florida State, 16-13, on a 55-yard field goal as time expired.

Instead, the Tigers wound up with a painfully mediocre 6-6 regular season and now need a bowl victory to have an 11th consecutive winning season. To that end, Clemson's rabid fan base that traditionally has turned out en masse for bowl games could elevate the Tigers in the ACC bowl pecking order.

Clemson is believed to be coveted by the Meineke Car Care Bowl, which despite having the fifth pick of league teams could reach down and pluck the Tigers -- and likely sell out the game in nearby Charlotte, N.C. -- to face a Big East opponent such as Pittsburgh, Syracuse or West Virginia.

If that's not in the cards, the Tigers are likely to drop to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., where the team has only one previous appearance -- a 1985 loss to Minnesota.

"Most years, Clemson's not left over," said one Independence Bowl scout who would love to invite the Tigers.

This could be that year.

GAME BALL GOES TO: LB Corico Hawkins -- Hawkins, a sophomore, had a career-high 13 tackles in Saturday night's 29-7 loss to No. 18 South Carolina. He was the primary reason the Tigers were able to hold Marcus Lattimore -- the SEC's second-leading rusher -- to just 48 yards on 23 rushes. Hawkins' 13 stops were the most by a Clemson player this season.

KEEP AN EYE ON: QB Tajh Boyd -- The sophomore came on in relief of starter Kyle Parker early in the third quarter after Parker threw an ill-advised pass that was returned 37 yards for an easy touchdown. Boyd never left the game, completing 10 of 18 passes for 73 yards. With Parker perhaps more anxious than ever to focus on his professional baseball career (he was a first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies last June) after his ugly final-game performance, Boyd might take the reins for the Tigers' bowl game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This was a very disappointing season. To lose to USC is very unacceptable. Our future is bright, but it's awful dark right now." -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, following his team's 29-7 loss to arch rival South Carolina in the Tigers' regular-season finale Saturday night. Top Stories