When this season started, there were few teams as under-the-radar as Clemson. They were unranked, untested and not expected to do much.
A new quarterback, rebuilt defense and new offensive coordinator caused the Clemson faithful to say, "If Clemson wins eight games this year, I'll be happy."
And even when Clemson did, they weren't really happy.
Clemson ripped through the first eight games of the season, and all of a sudden the expectation was raised.
All the way to talk of a national championship.
Unfortunately, the Tigers historically do not play well as the favorite. True to form, they lost momentum down the stretch, dropping three of their last four regular season games
And the one they did win was not pretty.
The talent is all there—Clemson just let it go dormant for a spell. Fortunately, they woke up against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game and for their efforts, earned a bid to the Orange Bowl.
Dabo Swinney has his work cut out for him next year, as Clemson is likely to be ranked in the top 15 come preseason 2012.
He knows his Tigers need some work, and help is on the way.
Here are six things the Tigers need to fix before next year when that bulls-eye on their backs will get even bigger.
If somebody walked around telling me how good I was all the time, I would probably start to believe it.
Clemson certainly did. The trend started in the Maryland game.
Clemson was down by 18 points late in the game when the heavens opened, the choir started singing and Sammy Watkins started running through the Maryland defense like a greased pig.
But why did Clemson have to claw their way back into it?
It's not talent—we've established that.
That's right. Focus. Clemson started to believe their own hype and it showed on the field.
Dabo pulled out all the right platitudes about keeping his team grounded, but in the opening minutes of the Georgia Tech game Clemson looked discombobulated and unfocused.
They looked ready to implode the entire Wake Forest game and finally did against NC State.
The teams that stay focused win championships.
Also the teams with NFL players at every position like LSU.
C.J. Brown came into the Maryland game as a wild card. Randy Edsall had kept his starting quarterback under his hat the week before, and Clemson obviously prepared for Danny O'Brien.
Brown proceeded to take apart Clemson's defense like a skilled surgeon.
Same story with Tevin Washington of Georgia Tech and Connor Shaw of South Carolina.
The defensive line was doing their job by trying to get to the quarterback. The problem was that by the time they got to him, he was down the field.
Where were the linebackers and why couldn't defensive coordinator Kevin Steele figure out how to use them to staunch the bleeding?
Tig Willard, Quandon Christian and Corico Hawkins all return next year but need to figure out how to stop a running quarterback if they are going to keep their playing time up.
Stephone Anthony had a stellar year as a true freshman and will be a huge part of this defense.
When Tony Steward returns from his knee injury, he might be the key as his recruiting videos show him gracefully chasing down quarterbacks like a tiger chasing a chicken.
See what I did there?
Lateek Townsend should also make a push for playing time.
Will any of these be able to stop a mobile quarterback?
If Kevin Steele can figure that out, he'll have one of the best defenses in the country.
Florida State backup quarterback Clint Trickett surveyed the field and decided to go for it all. He slung the ball with all the strength his skinny arms could muster and found Rodney Smith for a 57-yard touchdown.
You can insert any quarterback's name into that scenario, because it happened almost every game against Clemson.
The secondary would let somebody get behind them, and it would turn into points for the other team.
Even Logan Thomas in the ACCCG let one fly that blew past Xavier Brewer and tied up the score in the first half.
As that was the penultimate game of the season, you would think Clemson would have eliminated that from their list of things they would allow the other team to do.
You would think wrong.
Unlike the linebacking corps, the secondary is made up of several graduate students who should have their positions under wraps by now.
Coty Sensabuagh and Rashard Hall both fall into this category, while Xavier Brewer and Jonathon Meeks are both juniors and have seen too much playing time to still be allowing guys behind them.
The good news is that everybody else is a sophomore or younger. Bashaud Breeland is a redshirt freshman, who saw the field a ton this year.
There were also guys who didn't play much, such as Garry Peters and Cortez Davis, who were highly recruited for a reason.
Next year, Travis Blanks headlines a crew of solid defensive backs that are going to come in and compete for playing time.
If Steele can fix the deep ball, the secondary will be scary.
It's called the triple option.
It is supposedly a resurrected dinosaur offense that Paul Johnson has to defend to his critics year after year.
Unfortunately, Clemson has to defend it as well.
This year, they didn't do such a good job of it. It seems like after playing Georgia Tech all these years that Kevin Steele would figure out how to stop it.
Virgina Tech has. And Georgia. Why can't Clemson?
If Clemson wants to move from the realm of "good" teams to "elite" teams, they will need to beat GT and their crazy, old offense.
Even Clemson fans admit this Tiger is creepy. Maybe it's time to update the mascot.
It's those eyes! Those horrible yellow eyes!
I think this one is just because C.J. Spiller spoiled us.
A few years ago, Spiller came off the field with turf toe and whoever No. 23 was stepped in to take his place.
He promptly ran something like a 70-yard touchdown.
The announcers said, "If you squint a little bit, you can't tell the difference between him and C.J."
Last year, Ellington shared carries with Jamie Harper. When Harper split for the NFL, the show was his alone.
For some reason, despite having stellar numbers, Ellington has disappointed.
Ellington himself battled turf toe at the end of last season and had surgery in the offseason. Despite overtures of being 100 percent, Ellington has missed some games and looked somewhat lackluster in his efforts.
Ellington is an amazing running back, one of the best in the ACC, but if Dabo is going to get the multifaceted offense he wants, he will need to fix whatever is ailing him.
Part two—Mike Bellamy.
Bellamy was supposed to be the next big thing. Then he got suspended. Then his playing time went down. Then he said some things publicly about his team. Then he got suspended again.
If Clemson is going to have the explosive running game of the past, they will need a steady backup.
D.J. Howard is smart and capable but doesn't have Bellamy's all-world speed. This relationship needs to be fixed and fast.