- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

CLEMSON, S.C. | Clemson coach Dabo Swinney watched the past six seasons as talented Tigers teams who appeared ready for success stumbled to disappointing finishes.

With a similar scenario unfolding for his 2-3 Tigers last month, Swinney did what he could to stop it cold. Six victories later, the result is No. 15 Clemson’s first trip to the ACC championship game and the chance for even bigger things ahead.

“There’s a lot of joy in Clemson with that Atlantic Division title,” Swinney said Sunday.

Just as there was much frustration following Maryland’s 24-21 victory over Clemson on Oct. 3, still the last-place Terrapins’ lone ACC win.

The Tigers had shown some promise in close September losses to two programs now both in the top 10, Georgia Tech (30-27) and TCU (14-10). The Maryland loss was an aberration to Swinney.

“We were the better team. We should’ve won,” he said flatly.

So Swinney gathered his players the Monday after the defeat for an accountability session. He spliced together a tape of Clemson’s worst hits - and drops, missed blocks and poor rushes.

“We had to all get on the same page and understand what it took to go from losing to winning,” Swinney explained.

He challenged players and assistants to sharpen execution and play like the champions he knew they were. If they did that, Swinney said, special things would happen.

The most special happening took place Saturday when Clemson clinched the ACC’s Atlantic Division. First place was locked up when Boston College fell to North Carolina before the Tigers even kicked off, although they still took care of business with a 34-21 win over Virginia for their longest win streak since 2006.

“It was a great lesson,” Swinney said of the Maryland game. “We didn’t all take genius pills and coach smarter. We just grew as a team.”

The Tigers displayed a rock-solid focus the past six games often missing when Swinney was receivers coach for ex-leader Tommy Bowden.

In 2006, Clemson was 7-1 and seemed the class of the ACC before losing two of its final three league games to miss the title game. A season later, the Tigers were 8-2 and played Boston College at Death Valley for the Atlantic Division, but Matt Ryan’s 43-yard touchdown throw with under two minutes left spoiled that chance.

Clemson entered last season as the ACC’s clear-cut favorite and brought a No. 9 ranking into its opener against Alabama at the Georgia Dome. The Tigers were smothered 34-10 in a preview of disappointments to come. After league losses to Maryland and Wake Forest made a division crown near impossible, Bowden was allowed to walk away, and Swinney took control.

Swinney was a refreshing dose of enthusiasm to players beaten down by failure. When they chance to live down to things this season, they rallied behind senior stars like C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford.

“It feels good to finally prove people wrong,” said Ford, the receiver who had a 24-yard touchdown catch among his 195 all-purpose yards against Virginia.

Swinney had a host of family in town both for the game and to celebrate his 40th birthday Friday. The division win kept the party going well into the night.

Then, like each Sunday before, Swinney showed up at Clemson’s football office, clicked on the tape and graded film to prepare for next week’s game with state rival South Carolina.

“Our preparation will be the same, and we’ll dial our kids back in,” Swinney said. “They understand what’s out there for them. Obviously it’s not an ACC game, but it’s extremely important.”

Only when that game’s done will Swinney let coaches, managers, staffers and players consider the championship game against Coastal division winner Georgia Tech. Clemson has not won an ACC crown since 1991.

None of it would have happened had the Tigers not paid attention to Swinney’s message in that packed meeting room seven weeks ago.

“This thing has eluded us for a while, so to punch through and get this thing done, to put together a run like we have, it’s very gratifying,” Swinney said.

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