This time a year ago, Clemson was 8-0 and ranked No. 6 in the nation. Yet, Tigers’ coach Dabo Swinney believes his current edition is better situated from an all-encompassing perspective despite having a loss on its resume.
In part, it’s the program’s growth and maturity driving his thinking. Stronger leadership by veteran players accompanying the club’s immense talent base, and a full calendar’s worth of experience and knowledge for the staff make for a more fortified foundation. Swinney said last year’s bunch got a bit distracted and lost some focus over the season’s final month, but doesn’t expect that to happen this time around.
That would bode well in No. 13 (in BCS Standings) Clemson’s quest for a second consecutive spot in a BCS bowl. The program has played in six major bowls in its proud history, but never in successive seasons.
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Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) will try to take another step toward BCS viability Saturday evening at Duke (6-3, 3-2), but it may not be the breeze previous visits to Durham have been. The Blue Devils, who are bowl eligible for the first time in 18 years, haven’t lost at home and are averaging 42.6 points per outing at Wallace Wade Stadium.
This will mark the first time the programs have ever met in a night game, a product of them being two of the ACC’s three bowl-eligible squads. As talented as Clemson is, Duke presents some challenges, especially in the form of experienced playmakers on offense. But Swinney isn’t nearly as concerned about Duke as he is about Clemson.
“I tell our guys all the time, it’s about Clemson,” the fifth-year coach said. “That’s what we’ve talked about all year. It’s about our preparation, our focus, our attention to details, how we play the game and execute our plan to win.”
The Tigers were razor sharp in the first half last Thursday in opening up a 35-0 second-quarter lead at Wake Forest. Quarterback Tajh Boyd threw a career-high five touchdown passes before halftime, and finished with a school-record 428 passing yards.
The performance was evidence supporting Swinney’s view of his team: They are much more dialed in than they were a year ago.
“We expect to execute in a manner that we score every time we get the ball,” Boyd said after the 42-13 win over the Demon Deacons.
It’s that confidence — not cockiness — that permeates the program. Even Swinney’s emotional eruptions of a year ago appear more controlled, not so much intentionally, it’s just that the coach is handling success differently. Again, more growth.
Perhaps Swinney is just more confident in this team. And why not? The Tigers have scored in 30 of 32 quarters this season, a figure that will apply pressure on Duke’s and everyone else’s defense before even taking the field with them.
“Play with 12 or 13 (players), that would be the best approach,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe replied when asked about the best way to defend Clemson. “They have as many weapons as anyone in football.”
Swinney’s team has a chance at finishing the season 4-1 on the road. Their final three games are at Death Valley versus Maryland and N.C. State inside the ACC and conclude with a visit from hated rival South Carolina of the SEC. Opportunity abounds.
“We talked coming into this season about my concern with taking another step with this program and becoming a consistent winner putting two, three, four, five consistent seasons together,” Swinney said. “That’s what we need to do.
“We’re headed in that direction. This would be a positive step to do something that hadn’t been done very much in the past 15 or so years around here. It’s a great opportunity for us to get off to a good start in the month of November.”
Clemson’s players would very much like to atone for the debacle in last January’s Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, when the Tigers allowed a BCS bowl-record 70 points. But to their credit it’s not something that comes up much. They’ve put that game away, partitioning it neatly somewhere in the recesses of their psyches. But it still serves as an underlying force for this team and program.
Swinney is guarding against his team repeating last November’s drop off. And if the Tigers stay on their current track they just may land in a BCS bowl even without winning a second consecutive ACC championship. That’s Swinney’s primary focus.
“At the end of November, hopefully we’ll be a relevant football team from a national standpoint,” he said. “The only way to do that is to take care of the task at hand.”