RALEIGH, N.C. -- Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd had heard the word enough. The story has been beaten into the ground, but the Tigers' senior quarterback still brought it up when discussing Clemson's uncharacteristic 26-14 win against N.C. State on Thursday.
"A lot of people were looking for us to have a letdown game, or a [pause, air-quotes up] Clemson-ing type of game," Boyd said. "It wasn't perfect by any means, it wasn't pretty by any means, but you've got to love going on the road and getting the win."
The Tigers rocketed up the polls thanks, in part, to a potent offense that looked damn close to "pretty" and "perfect" at times in the season-opening victory against Georgia. Clemson's fast start led to a slingshot up the AP poll to No. 3, landing just ahead of Ohio State and behind Alabama and Oregon.
But the offense that drew the attention of a national TV audience -- along with scouts from numerous NFL teams -- did not show up in the first half against the Wolfpack.
Much of that credit goes to NC State's defense, getting pressure on Boyd early and preventing the Tigers from getting into a rhythm in the first half. Clemson did not score their first touchdown of the game until the final minutes of the first half, and the Tigers only held a 13-7 lead at the break.
"We just missed some plays in the first half," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Very disappointed we had two or three scoring opportunities in the first half, and we just missed them. It's that simple. I thought that we had a good game plan, I was pleased we were able to run the ball, just kind of disappointed with the execution in the first half."
The mood from the Tigers head coach after the game more relief than celebration. He knew, like everyone else, that the No. 3 team in the country was a few lucky breaks from reliving those worn-out narratives about losing on the big stage. The most notable break came when NC State wide receiver Bryan Underwood sprinted down the right sideline 83 yards for a touchdown that wasn't. While the home crowd erupted to celebrate a potential 14-13 lead, the officials stood at the 47 yard line; where Underwood was called out and the play was blown dead.
Because the play was blown dead, it was not reviewable.
"That run was right in front of me," Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said after the game. "He wasn't out of bounds. Unfortunately, they blew it dead so we couldn't review it. It cost us some points, but you have to move on from that."
Swinney acknowledged that play, and the Vic Beasley forced fumble three plays later, as the turning point in the game.
"That was a tough break for them and good break for us," Swinney said bluntly.
So where does Clemson, a team that needed a few good breaks to escape Raleigh with a win, stack up with the rest of the BCS title contenders? As long as the Tigers are undefeated, there is no reason to remove them from the conversation.
Notre Dame needed more than a few lucky breaks to escape Stanford and Pittsburgh on the way to an undefeated regular season in 2012. Kansas State was less fortunate, falling short of a BCS title bid thanks to a road loss at Baylor. Florida lived and died on ugly wins and lucky breaks last season, finishing just one spot out of the big game in the final BCS standings. In today's college football landscape it seems like no one wins the BCS title, instead teams lose their shot one-by-one.
Clemson didn't win over any new supporters with their performance on Thursday, but in the gauntlet that is a college football season you have to win ugly sometimes -- particularly on the road in conference play. At this point, Alabama, Clemson, and the Tigers' ACC rivals from Tallahassee are the only top-10 teams to have gone on the road in conference play and won. As we move into the season, there will be more undefeated teams that face the same uphill battle Clemson did on Thursday.
As long as you avoid the letdown loss, the game doesn't need to be aesthetically pleasing. The BCS title isn't won in conference road games, but it absolutely can be lost.