CLEMSON, S.C. – Two years later, it all makes sense.
It has been said that hindsight is 20/20.
That saying is cliché, but it works perfectly when you examine the evolution of Clemson’s football program.
Entering this week’s game against Boston College, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers have established themselves as a bona fide BCS national title contender. Ranked No. 3 nationally, they’re 5-0 with a season-opening marquee win over Georgia. In the last two weeks, they’ve routed Wake Forest and Syracuse by a combined score of 105-21. A win over BC would set up a monstrous top-10 home showdown against Florida State.
Led by senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Tajh Boyd, Clemson is a poised, experienced veteran team.
The experience the Tigers have built up over the past three years is paying off handsomely, particularly the nightmarish end to the 2011 season.
And it might just pay off with Clemson’s first national title in 32 years.
Two years ago, a young, talented Clemson team pushed into late October as one of college football’s best teams. The Tigers were 8-0 and No. 6 in the BCS rankings.
Then, it all fell apart.
The unbeaten season went by the boards in a 31-17 loss at Georgia Tech that featured four Clemson turnovers.
A week later, the Tigers rallied for a 31-28 final-play win over Wake Forest that clinched the ACC Atlantic Division title but were whipped 37-13 a week later at N.C. State while looking thoroughly unmotivated.
A 34-13 beating at South Carolina followed, and while Clemson rebounded with a 38-10 ACC Championship Game win over Virginia Tech, West Virginia finished the slide with a 70-33 Orange Bowl drubbing. No team had ever scored more points in a bowl game, and a week later defensive coordinator Kevin Steele left his position by mutual decision.
Following that 8-0 start, the Tigers finished 2011 2-4 and the butt of numerous jokes.
“We were so young,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recalled last week. “It was like our first trip to Disney World. You walk around looking at things, and you’re like, ‘Wow!’ We lost focus.”
That fall, Clemson played 29 true and redshirt freshmen, which tied Indiana for the national lead. That included national freshman of the year Sammy Watkins, one of four players ever to be named an Associated Press first-team All-American.
“I think as a freshman, our minds and everything was going so fast,” Watkins said. “We were the No. 8 team, 8-0, thought we were on top of the world. I don’t think we worked as hard. I think we thought it was going to be easy.”
Last year, the Tigers showed they’d learned from their mistakes. Clemson’s only losses were to ACC champion Florida State in Tallahassee and to an 11-win South Carolina team in Memorial Stadium.
A last-second 25-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU, coupled with the season-opening win over Georgia, marked the first time a non-SEC team had beaten back-to-back top-10 SEC opponents.
Boyd matured, too. As a sophomore, he threw 33 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Last year, he threw 36 scores against 13 picks. And through five games, he has 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions, both last week at Syracuse.
Saturday’s win over Syracuse marked the Tigers’ 13th consecutive victory by at least 10 points over unranked opponents, second-best nationally behind No. 1 Alabama, which has a 22-game streak.
Under new defensive coordinator Brent Venables, the defense has improved, too. Clemson has allowed 14 points or less in four consecutive games, the program’s longest such streak since 2000.
“This is the deepest team we’ve had,” Swinney said. “When you can win on defense, special teams, offense, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good. That’s where we are right now. We don’t have to play great on offense. We’ve got to play OK, but we don’t have to play great. We think we can make a difference in a game on special teams and defense.”
Leadership, Swinney said, has improved too.
“They’re very dialed in. They get it, they understand,” he said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with is our leadership. It’s one thing to have good leadership. It’s another to be very experienced. What I like about this team more than anything is that we have good depth in key spots.
“Our quarterback is a great leader, we have good skill guys playing hard, and we’ve grown up on both sides of the ball. It’s the fact that we’ve all been there. With a majority of guys (two years ago) you had young guys playing who didn’t have experience.”
Watkins, a leader for the wide receiver corps, agrees. In his eyes, the only thing that matters is building on 2012’s success.
“Overall I think we have got some guys that can be national champions and beat all the records that last year’s team did,” he said. “It’s up to the team as a whole group, come together, be more vocal, do the little things right. I think so far we’ve handled the success and grown up from that 2011 team that got up so high and got brought down, and we’ve been improving every year.
"Coach Swinney, Coach (Chad) Morris, Coach Venables are doing a great job keeping us grounded with the success we’ve had. We’ve got to keep doing it right.”
Watkins says he and his teammates welcome discipline and scrutiny, too.
“I think week-in, week-out, we come to practice every day ready to work, we come focused,” he said. “We don’t care what the coaches give us, running, discipline. Initially you would have had a lot of guys complaining, something would have went down. We would have taken it as a negative thing. Now we’re taking it as a positive thing, it’s going to get us better. We changed our whole perspective about discipline.”
Significant roadblocks remain in Clemson’s quest for BCS glory, like Florida State, South Carolina and an ACC title game.
But it’s clear that the Tigers are far more mature and far better equipped to handle them than they were two years ago at this time.
*Unless noted, all quotes for this article were gathered by the author.
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