For most of his career, Clemson's C.J. Spiller has been half of a terrific tailback tandem. A 5'11", 195-pound bolt of lightning, he split time with the more physical James Davis, who led the Tigers in carries and rushing yards each of the last three seasons. But Davis left for the NFL after his senior campaign last fall, and Spiller, in his full-time role as the team's offensive heartbeat, has been a revelation. Twice this season he has amassed more than 300 all-purpose yards in a game, the only player in Division I-A to do so in 2009. And he has scored his 15 touchdowns with wonderful variety, having reached the end zone as a rusher (seven times), a receiver (four), a punt returner (one) and a kick returner (three). He even passed for a TD two weeks ago. "If we keep missing extra points, we might let him kick," says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who is campaigning earnestly for Spiller's Heisman Trophy candidacy. "He's the best player in the country."
Spiller, who bypassed the NFL draft despite being widely projected as a first-round pick, and the rest of the 18th-ranked Tigers (8--3, 6--2 in the ACC) are in the midst of a season to remember. Clemson's 34--21 victory over visiting Virginia last Saturday was its sixth in a row and put the finishing touches on an afternoon that began with the Tigers—by virtue of North Carolina's defeat of Boston College earlier—locking up first place in the ACC's Atlantic Division. No matter the outcome of Saturday's tilt at reeling South Carolina, losers of three straight, Clemson will meet Georgia Tech in Tampa on Dec. 5 to play for the school's first conference championship in 18 years.
The day's only mellow note was that Spiller's Heisman chances probably took a hit. Hampered by a sore right toe and running into the teeth of the Cavaliers' swarming 3--4 defense, he never broke the kind of big play that has defined his season—he has scored eight touchdowns on plays that covered at least 50 yards—though he did hit pay dirt on a four-yard run in the second quarter. Spiller gained just 58 yards on 19 carries, and finished with 114 all-purpose yards (81 below his average). His impact was unmistakable nevertheless. The Cavaliers kept the ball away from him on every kickoff, and with the Virginia defense crowding the line, the field opened for quarterback Kyle Parker, who completed 19 of 26 passes for 234 yards and two scores. "C.J.'s impacting the game whether he's touching the ball or not," says offensive coordinator Billy Napier.
In their first meeting, on Sept. 10, Clemson lost to the Yellow Jackets 30--27 after falling behind 24--0. Swinney is quick to point out that the Tigers were playing on five days' rest. They'll get a week to prepare this time. After that it will be another week until the Heisman ceremony in New York City. But win or lose, Spiller, who will graduate with a degree in sociology on Dec. 17, is glad he came back. "Guys keep coming up and telling me they're going to get me to New York," he says, "but I'm happy right here."
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Ground For an Upset?
Beware, Boise State. The Broncos (11--0) may be two wins from their third perfect regular season in four years, but a big obstacle stands in their way. Nevada (8--3) comes calling on Friday with its top-ranked rushing offense (373.2 yards per game). In a 63--20 victory over New Mexico State last Saturday, Luke Lippincott(below) ran for 162 yards as the Wolf Pack became the first team in NCAA history with three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season; Lippincott (1,028 yards) joins Vai Taua (1,185) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (1,129). During its eight-game winning streak, Nevada has rushed for 559, 345, 313, 484, 312, 517, 461 and 574 yards. Boise State, which is looking to secure a BCS at-large bid, ranks 29th in the country against the run.
BILL FRAKES (SPILLER)
LASTING IMPRINT Spiller is the only player in Division I-A to rack up more than 300 yards in a game twice this season.
DAMON TARVER/CAL SPORT MEDIA (LIPPINCOTT)