Over the past three and a half years, Clemson has been given a makeover -- so much so that if you’re just tuning in, you might not recognize the 13th-ranked Tigers.
The offense looks unstoppable. The defense is much better than the disaster it was in the infamous Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. And the coaching staff is earning its money.
The biggest difference?
This Clemson team is not “pulling a Clemson.”
It’s a phrase Clemson fans have grown to both despise and fear because for so many years it has held true. Clemson has been a program notorious for losing games it shouldn’t (2011: vs. NC State; 2010: vs. Boston College; 2009: at Maryland; 2008: vs. Maryland). You get the idea.
Not this year.
"We hate that term so much as a team," said quarterback Tajh Boyd. "Coming into last season, we heard it so much going into the next game. Last year it was a matter of, 'When is Clemson going to pull a Clemson?' For us, we look at that as kind of demeaning. We take credit as a program for everything that happens in the past and will happen in the future. But at the same time, we don't want to leave that as the legacy, something that's ongoing and will be continuing. We really want to end that now. The culture is starting to change a little bit. We're just trying to create something that will last forever. We're trying to get rid of that stigma of pulling a Clemson, and when we play to a standard, that when I think that doesn't happen anymore."
It certainly hasn't happened this season.
Coach Dabo Swinney has done a remarkable job, and he's surrounded himself with good coaches in coordinators Chad Morris and Brent Venables. Both have made a difference, and while the Tigers aren't flawless, they're certainly better than they have been. Clemson’s lone loss was to a Florida State team that should go on to win the ACC title this year, a legitimate road loss to a top-10 opponent. Since that loss, the Tigers (8-1) have won five straight and remain in contention for an at-large BCS bowl bid. They will finish their season with back-to-back games against downtrodden Atlantic Division opponents Maryland and NC State before hosting rival South Carolina. Last year, NC State shocked then-ranked No. 7 Clemson with a stunning 37-13 upset. Last week, the Wolfpack played its worst game of the year in a 33-6 loss to Virginia.
While it would be just like NC State -- which already beat then-No. 3 Florida State -- to pull off another monumental upset, this time in Death Valley, it’s looking less and less likely each week.
“The difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is definitely maturity,” said center Dalton Freeman. “Last year we had a lot of youth, very inexperienced guys at key positions. The way our schedule was set up, we didn’t have an open week until very late in the season. The grind got too much for some of our guys. With a year under their belt and having an open week right in the middle of the season ... it really allowed everybody to stay fresh and focused.”
Freeman said nobody within the program is even whispering about a BCS bowl. They learned their lesson, he said, after an 8-0 start came to a screeching halt with a loss to Georgia Tech. Clemson went on to lose four of their final six games.
“Last year we had never really been in that position where we were winning in and out every week,” Freeman said. “We started looking ahead at the big picture and getting excited about the big picture. This year we’ve really focused on win the day, whatever that day is, whether it’s film, practice, a game, whatever it is, just focus on that day, and if we do that, the cumulative effect will be positive.”
So far, it has added up to one of the best one-loss teams in the country.