It's All Mental (Part I)

I have to admit it. Watching the 2002 Clemson - Georgia game last night on CSS was as gut-wrenching as it was the first time around. So many plays in that ballgame could have gone either way, and there's little doubt in my mind that Clemson could have easily come away with the win.

An interception here, a couple of drive extending penalties there, two missed field goals, and a special teams collapse on a kickoff return certainly were instrumental in the Tigers' demise that evening in Athens.

While the game itself was as exciting as any in this storied rivalry, after Clemson exited Sanford Stadium with a 31-28 loss, the two football programs that left us all gasping for air that night went in two completely different directions.

Georgia would build on their confidence from that come-from-behind win to clinch scintillating wins against SEC foes South Carolina, Auburn, and Alabama on their way to the SEC Championship and a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State.

Meanwhile, Clemson would go through another roller coaster year in which nothing seemed to go right. Massive injuries were sustained on the offensive line, there was a heartbreaking loss to Virginia, not to mention several tumultuous defeats at the hands of Maryland, N.C. State, and to Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl.

The 2002 season seemed to go by so quickly that most Clemson fans were left wondering what in the world happened.

To me, the tone was set for the entire season that misty August night in Athens, when costly penalties, horrible special teams, and missed assignments cost the Tigers the game.

We saw the same sort of scenario later in the year against FSU. Just when it looked Clemson was going to finally take it to the Seminoles, a barrage of turnovers and miscues send the Tigers packing once again.

And just when it appeared as though some early season momentum was going to be established in each of the last two seasons, the Virginia Cavaliers doomed any hopes of an ACC Championship by pulling the outright upset in dramatic fashion.

There are numerous games that we've seen over the course of the last few years that followed this pattern- but that's all in the past. The important question that needs to be answered going forward is to figure out how that same scenario can be avoided in 2003.

Good question, and here's the simple answer: by beating Georgia.

That's right, as much as you hate to say it, the 2003 season opener against Georgia is the most pivotal game of the season. There's little doubt that a win over the nationally ranked Georgia Bulldogs would go a long way in restoring the confidence of a team that has been seemingly searching for an identity since it's success back in 2000.

And sure, I think Clemson has a legitimate chance to win that game, even though Georgia will come in likely ranked in the top 10. It's common knowledge that the Bulldogs lost their biggest, and perhaps most talented, offensive line in school history from a year ago, not to mention their starting running back and most of their linebackers.

Why wouldn't Clemson have a legitimate chance to be victorious, assuming the offensive line can give Charlie Whitehurst a half a second longer than what they were able to last year and the defense can continue to improve.

Certainly, we could talk personnel and X's and O's all day long as to why Clemson should win, or why Georgia should win, but I'm not going to really dive into that this early in the summer.

No, I'd like to explore another idea that holds the key to that first game of the season for Clemson. Let's talk about the mental state of this football team entering the 2003 season.

There's no doubt that it's fragile. How could it not be after those 3 devastating losses on national television last year?

I've watched this team so closely in each of the last two seasons, and I've read more analysis on what has gone wrong and where the blame lies. Yet at the same time, I think some of the so called "experts" have it all wrong.

To me, even with the injuries, blown assignments, and all of the mistakes that have always seem to creep up and bite this team more times than we'd all like to admit, the Tigers need a mental adjustment more than anything else.

Instead of doing just enough to lose, this team needs to learn how to do just enough to win. Instead of allowing one loss to send the season into a tailspin, this team must learn how to overcome adversity and exceed expectations when the going gets tough.

If anything, the Clemson football program just needs to get over "the hump," and nothing could do that faster than opening the year with an upset of the SEC Champion Georgia Bulldogs.

Just look back at last year's loss in Athens and see how that single mirrored the season for both teams.

Georgia found a way to win under incredibly difficult circumstances time after time in 2002, while the Tigers found a way to lose just when it seemed like their fortunes may be turning.

So how does a team accomplish this? How does a coaching staff improve the mental state of a team and teach it how to excel when things don't go their way?

Well, it may be easier than you think, and we'll explore what appears to be directly on the horizon tomorrow, in part II of "It's All Mental." Top Stories