ATLANTA – Like the broken-hearted guy stuck with a tattoo bearing an ex-girlfriend's name, Clemson can't rid itself of the underachiever label.
No matter how many times the Tigers ready to change their reputation, they inevitably revert to form at the worst possible moment. It happened again Saturday night.
"We did want to come here and prove the doubters wrong," Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper said late Saturday night after a 34-10 loss to Alabama at the Georgia Dome. "We wanted to earn their respect that we don't feel like we're getting. Maybe we don't deserve it."
That might be an understatement.
Clemson responded to its highest preseason ranking since 1991 – No. 9 – by proving once again that it handles prosperity about as well as Richard Hatch, the guy who parlayed the first million-dollar jackpot on "Survivor" into a tax-evasion conviction.
The Tigers trailed 13-0 by the time they picked up their initial first down. They finished with zero net rushing yards on 14 carries. Their offense didn't reach the end zone all night. They allowed Alabama to hold the ball for more than two-thirds of the game.
"We got whipped about any way you can get whipped," said Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who called it the worst physical beating his team had absorbed in the past three years.
Skeptics might argue that the only surprise about the Tigers' collapse is that it happened so early in the season, yet Clemson still could live up to its lofty preseason expectations.
While this game knocked Clemson out of realistic national-title contention before Labor Day, the Tigers were only viewed as fringe challengers to play for the national championship anyway. The more realistic goal involved Clemson's quest to win the ACC.
Recent history shows that an embarrassing early season loss to an SEC school doesn't knock a team out of ACC title contention.
"Virginia Tech played LSU last year … and they lost pretty bad," tailback James Davis said, referring to the Hokies' 48-7 setback. "And they still fought back and they were able to go to the ACC Championship Game and also the BCS. We're in that situation right now. We've got to be able to fight back."
Clemson didn't show much fight in its opener. Then again, neither did the rest of the ACC.
Virginia Tech opened its ACC title defense by losing to Conference USA member East Carolina. Virginia fell 52-7 to USC. Maryland and North Carolina struggled to beat Division I-AA programs Delaware and McNeese State.
The ACC's dismal showing Saturday came two days after N.C. State opened the season with a 34-0 loss to South Carolina. The SEC won its two head-to-head matchups with the ACC by a combined 68-10, which made Harper's postgame comparison of the leagues all the more puzzling.
"I think the ACC is just as good as the SEC," Harper said. "I think we didn't have a good showing tonight, but I think the two conferences are very equal."
Anyone who watched the Alabama-Clemson drubbing or the South Carolina-North Carolina State blowout would have a tough time keeping a straight face while hearing that comment. Then again, the Tigers have a unique perspective on the strength of the ACC. After all, they haven't won a league championship since 1991.
That drought has led to all kinds of speculation about Clemson's mental toughness.
Before this week, the last time Clemson entered the top 10 in the national rankings came two years ago after a nationally televised 31-7 shellacking of Georgia Tech. The Tigers promptly lost four of their last five games to finish 8-5.
Last season, Clemson only needed to win a home game against Boston College to reach the ACC Championship Game for the first time. The Tigers gave up a 43-yard touchdown pass with 1:46 remaining, dropped a potential touchdown pass in the final minute and missed a field goal as time expired in a 20-17 loss.
This time, Clemson didn't have to worry about coming up short in the final minute. The Tigers let the game get out of hand long before then.
Clemson already trailed 3-0 when Harper underthrew a wide-open Aaron Kelly down the left sideline on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage, turning a potential long gain into a near-interception. The Tigers attempted their first run from scrimmage on the next play, but the carry didn't go to either Davis or C.J. Spiller, who comprise arguably the nation's top tailback tandem. The ball instead went to true freshman Jamie Harper, who fumbled at Clemson's 31 to set up Leigh Tiffin's second field goal of the night.
Clemson never recovered.
"The responsibility of getting a team prepared is mine," Bowden said. "As I told the team, I didn't get them prepared. That's my job and responsibility. I'll find a solution to the problem. … This is one game out of 12. We've got a long way to go. I've got to start with myself and work down."
Bowden acknowleged Sunday that he promised the first carry of the season to Harper while recruiting the former four-star prospect from Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian. Bowden didn't regret the decision and noted he made similar types of promises to Davis, Spiller and former Clemson receivers Justin Miller and Roscoe Crosby while recruiting them.
Clemson's soft early season schedule should give the Tigers plenty of time to recover from their Saturday night debacle. Clemson stays home for its next four games, including visits from Division I-AA programs The Citadel and South Carolina State.
In the meantime, Bowden has plenty of questions to ask himself. How does a team with two of the nation's top tailbacks gain zero rushing yards? Why did Spiller carry the ball just twice? Why did Kelly finish with only 28 receiving yards? Is Clemson's inexperienced offensive line as bad as it looked against Alabama? Better yet, how can his team recover from such a brutal season-opening setback?
"We have to look at ourselves in the mirror," Kelly said. "Obviously we've got to work harder and we've got to make more plays because when the pressure's on, we didn't make the plays we needed to make."
Kelly's last comment has become an all-too-familiar refrain at Clemson. He can only hope it doesn't serve as the epitaph for one more season that didn't quite live up to expectations.