CLEMSON, S.C. -- Kyle Young knows there's still some football - and possibly a bowl game - left in his Clemson career, but he can't stop wondering how the final, stellar season he longed for fell to pieces.
The Tigers (5-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) were supposed to have the ACC title or a BCS bowl game in their pockets by now. Instead, they must beat winless Duke (0-10, 0-7) at Death Valley on Saturday for a chance at the postseason.
Young thought everything was in place for a big championship finish this year after Clemson won nine games in 2000 and was in the national title hunt until the final weeks. But the Tigers never could build confidence or momentum this year, losing three in a row at Memorial Stadium for the first time in 26 seasons.
"The biggest thing for our team this year was we were never able to put all the pieces together in one football game," said Young, a center whose family lives a mile from campus and who grew up an orange-blooded Tiger fan. "As far as why that was the case? I don't really know. It's got me scratching my head."
Clemson had one of its worst Novembers in history, losing to a fading Florida State, falling to ACC champ Maryland for the first time in nine years and getting beat by archrival South Carolina.
"It was a rough time, there's no doubt," Tigers guard Will Merritt said.
The only shot at redemption comes this weekend against a Duke team on a 22-game losing streak. If the Tigers win and become bowl eligible, they could land in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl; in Orlando, Fla., for the Tangerine Bowl; or out West for games in Seattle; Boise, Idaho; or Silicon Valley.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said he has no bowl preference if his team wins Saturday. "I always look at bowls as a reward for your players and the hard work they've done," Bowden said Tuesday.
The team worked out three days last week before a Thanksgiving break. Young said the attitude since the return has been positive, pointing to the Duke game and not the so-so season.
"We got one more chance, and we're hoping we can right the ship or right the wrongs, whatever the saying is," Young said.
Merritt said injuries, particularly on offense to receivers such as Kevin Youngblood and Roscoe Crosby, robbed the unit of timing and experience. Turnovers followed, Merritt said, as the team struggled to catch up in losses to the Seminoles, Terps and Gamecocks.
None of that matters this week, Merritt said. He said the team talks about this like the high-school playoffs. "You know in those that you have to win or you go home," he said. "That's what we're facing this week."
Bowden has pointed to the injuries - they also include a season-ender to promising linebacker Altroy Bodrick - a lack of high-grade, recruit-wooing football facilities and the general youth of his three-year tenure as reasons for the season's backslide.
"These weren't our expectations" this year, Bowden said. "But I told the team very seldom in life do you achieve all your expectations, whether it be in business, whether it be in marriage, whether it be in anything. ... Whatever you're dealt, do the best you can with it."
The game on paper looks like a blowout. The Tigers are favored by as many as 26 points.
Quarterback Woodrow Dantzler leads the league in total offense with close to a 300-yard average, while the Blue Devils have allowed 50 points a game in their past five losses.
But Dantzler says to overlook Duke would be the gravest mistake in a season where errors already have cost the Tigers. "We can't get caught up in the past and what's happened before," he said. "We have to concentrate on what we can have an effect on."
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