This year Clemson is out of the gate at 12-0, the only undefeated team in the ACC as it prepares to face Georgia on December 28.
Yet at this point it's difficult to take the Tigers too seriously, no matter how good they may prove to be. Clemson is known in ACC circles for breaking quickly out of the gate, only to fall off sharply once league play begins.
The ephemeral nature of those starts is assumed to reflect the weakness of the non-league opposition, a state of affairs not entirely within the program's control. As Cliff Ellis, head coach from 1985-1994, readily noted, national television isn't exactly clamoring to match Clemson against marquee opponents.
Moreover, good teams tend to avoid the Tigers unless compelled to face them in tournament play. Since the school has a low basketball profile, a loss to Clemson must be explained away while a win attracts little attention.
However weak or strong your schedule, you still have to beat the teams on it, which isn't always as easy as it appears. Just look at Boston College losing at home this season to Vermont, or Virginia falling to Appalachian State at Puerto Rico, or Miami losing in Indiana to Cleveland State and Buffalo.
Clemson not only is undefeated to date, but beat Appalachian State by 30 points and topped a Mississippi State squad that beat Miami by 18.
The impressive start by the Tigers has a familiar ring. But just how valid are assumptions about Clemson's starts?
Well, before drawing conclusions keep in mind that Clemson historically is something short of an ACC power. Quite the contrary -- through good starts and bad the Tigers are usually conference also-rans. Since 1980, a mere four of 27 Clemson teams enjoyed a winning ACC record, fewer than any other program during that period. If you don't finish well, how you start may not be particularly important.
ACC YOU LATER
Winning ACC Records By School, In League Continuously Since 1980
Besides, impressions to the contrary, Clemson has not enjoyed all that many sterling pre-ACC starts.
Only five of the last 27 Clemson squads were undefeated entering league play.
Just six sets of Tigers since 1980 began a season with a double-digit winning streak. That counts the current team. Of the other five squads that won 10 or more to open, all reached postseason play. That includes the 2006 team. Two of the five double-digit debuts eventually yielded NCAA appearances (1996, 1987).
On the other hand, if Clemson doesn't enter ACC play with a winning record, it is cooked. Only twice since 1980 did the Tigers start ACC competition at .500 or worse, and each of those teams went on to lose 20 games.
Most telling is how the Tigers fare in their first four ACC contests.
Sometime we'll investigate whether a quick, winning start in ACC competition is a guarantee of good things to come for other league programs. It sure is for Clemson, where just 5 of 27 teams since 1980 went either 3-1 or 4-0 to open league play - the 1997, 1990, 1989, 1987, and 1980 units. All earned NCAA bids.
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