When there were finally no expectations, Clemson rose to the occasion.
With a new coach, new coordinators and a new quarterback, there was no No. 9 preseason ranking to live up to this year, and the Tigers were picked by the media to finish second in the Atlantic Division behind Florida State. After a 2-3 start that included an improbable 24-21 loss at struggling Maryland, the critics began to grow loud again, and many wondered whether first-year coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Billy Napier were the right men for the job.
Six consecutive wins later, they proved this was a different team under a different staff.
The Tigers' wildly entertaining 40-37 overtime win at Miami was one of the best games of the season, and gave Swinney the biggest win of his career. It was Clemson's first victory in nine tries over ranked teams, and the first road win over a top-10 opponent in more than eight years. Doubts always shadow this team, though, given its history to implode, and it wasn’t until Clemson clinched the division with a 34-21 win over Virginia that many fans were able to exhale and celebrate the program’s first appearance in the ACC title game.
The defense struggled late in the season, and was unable to stop rival South Carolina or Georgia Tech’s spread option offense in the ACC championship game. The Tigers lost to the Jackets, 39-34, to enter the postseason with back-to-back losses.
Offensive MVP: C.J. Spiller: He finished his career with one of his best games, and was named the MVP of the ACC championship game despite the loss to Georgia Tech. Spiller scored a touchdown five different ways this year, and had three 300-yard games. He finished with 1,145 rushing yards, and 11 rushing touchdowns, and a school-record 20 total touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: DeAndre McDaniel: In his first year in the secondary, McDaniel finished second in the nation and first in the ACC with a school single-season record eight interceptions in 13 games. Seven of his eight interceptions against ACC teams, and four came against top-15 teams. He also finished fourth on team in tackles with 87 and had two sacks.
Turning point: The 38-3 win over Wake Forest. The Tigers had two weeks to think about their inexplicable loss to a struggling Maryland team, but instead of sulking they pulled together to defeat Wake soundly. It was the start of a six-game winning streak that propelled Clemson into the school’s first-ever ACC title game.
What’s next: The Tigers have to regroup from their loss in the ACC championship game and disappointment in their bowl selection to try and beat Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.