CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said his No. 21 Tigers proved they can handle adversity. It was success they had a problem with the past month.
The Tigers (9-3) were one of college football’s surprise stories the first two months of the season as they followed their first losing season in 12 years with an 8-0 start in 2011. It was a run Clemson couldn’t sustain, though, losing three of its past four to finish the regular season.
“I think we did a poor job of handling success,” Swinney said Tuesday.
Clemson needs to get back on track in a hurry as the Tigers prepare to play for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship against No. 5 Virginia Tech (11-1) on Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C.
Swinney remembered how he told his players in August to be prepared to deal with the praise and excitement that come from winning, sometimes more difficult to cope with than losing.
Turns out, Swinney was right.
He felt the Tigers let the accolades get the better of them down the stretch, leading to mistakes in execution and attention.
“We were not quite as focused, not quite as hungry, not quite as humble,” the coach said.
Still, everyone on the Tigers sure did enjoy the winning, including the coach.
Swinney was criticized for his postgame shriek of joy on ESPN when interviewed about Clemson’s 38-24 win over defending national champion Auburn.
There were Gatorade showers given Swinney at Lane Stadium after the Tigers’ 23-3 victory over the Hokies and in a come-from-behind win at Maryland.
Such celebrations, Swinney said, meant Clemson was winning.
Center Dalton Freeman said it’s hard to escape the attention and happy attitudes of fans and classmates.
“We’d never been 8-0 before. You try and tune it out, but it’s virtually impossible,” he said. “For us, it’s just about learning from our mistakes.”
And there were plenty of them the past few weeks. An offense that looked unstoppable as it averaged nearly 500 yards and more than 40 points a game the first eight games turned tentative and error-prone after that.
The Tigers had committed 12 turnovers the past four games, double its total of six for the first two months of the season. They’ve averaged 18 points a game, less than half their production in their hot start. Quarterback Tajh Boyd threw 24 touchdowns and three interceptions in the 8-0 run.
That’s turned around, like everything else on the Tigers offense, too, with four TD passes and seven interceptions the past four games.
“We were having a lot of fun proving people wrong,” Boyd said. “And then it got to the point where we started to get high rankings and everything. We got complacent a little bit. We started to think us having a tiger paw on our helmet was going to guarantee us a win. It definitely didn’t work out that way.”
That was evident again last Saturday when Clemson got very little going in a 34-13 loss to its rival, No. 14 South Carolina. The offense had six three-and-out series, while the defense gave up 210 yards rushing to the Gamecocks.
“We have four practices left,” first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “We have to get it back and we’re going to get it back.”