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Tough stretch begins for Clemson

9/12/2011

As Clemson jogged off the field at halftime of its season opener against Troy, the Tigers were booed for their 16-13 deficit.

One week later, they found themselves tied at 21 at the half against unheralded FCS opponent Wofford.

Ready or not, here comes Auburn. And Florida State. And Virginia Tech.

“It’s a bigger challenge the next 10 games,” coach Dabo Swinney said when asked about the next three. “All you can do is measure where you are. We’re a team that’s a little bit of a work in progress, and that’s probably how it’s going to be here for a little bit. We’re very capable. We have a lot of potential. If we continue to give the kind of effort they’re giving, and keep showing up, and we do a great job of coaching ‘em up, we’ll see if we can find a way to keep winning, that’s the bottom line. We’ll find out Saturday if we’re ready for the next step.”

After a shaky start against two teams Clemson was expected to handle easily, the Tigers now enter the ‘champion’s row’ part of their schedule, which includes the defending national champs, the 2010 Atlantic Division champs, and last year’s Coastal Division champs. If the Tigers are going to have any chance of coming out on the winning end, those within the program know they have a lot of work to do.

Problem is, time is running out to do it.

“If we start looking at our schedule, it would probably be easy to get overwhelmed,” said center Dalton Freeman. “So we’re just trying to treat every game like the Super Bowl, because we know, our slogan this year has been ‘One team, one dream.’ That dream is to be a championship team. We can’t do that unless we take care of business each and every week. I don’t think anybody really looks at the big picture and says, ‘Wow, what a challenge.’ I think we look at it as a great opportunity. For us to have that dream, we have to have a great schedule. If we do the right things, with our schedule, we can skyrocket to the top.”

Only three overtime points separated Clemson from the national champions last year.

These teams are vastly different, though, than they were a year ago. Clemson has given its offense a makeover with first-year starting quarterback Tajh Boyd and first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Auburn opened the Mississippi State game with seven underclassmen starting on defense. Together they allowed 531 yards of offense and 27 points.

In the first week of the season, Clemson and Auburn combined to play 25 true freshmen and 47 total freshmen including redshirts. While both have a dramatically different look to them this fall, starting at quarterback, both teams have one very important trait in common as they prepare to face each other on Saturday: They have found ways to win.

Auburn just happens to have done it much longer.

“Listen, Auburn is the national champion until somebody can knock ‘em out,” Swinney said. “So far, nobody has been able to do that. Whether we were up 17, or Alabama was up 24, whatever, Auburn is the team that has put a 17-game winning streak together. It hasn’t always been pretty, but they’ve found a way to win, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

So says a coach whose team had to win ugly against Troy and Wofford this season. Last year’s loss to Auburn was the start of a three-game losing streak for Clemson, and the Tigers could be in for a similar slide this year if they don’t improve quickly.

“For us, it’s almost -- I wouldn’t say revenge -- but we know we can do it,” Freeman said. “We were right there last year. We just want another chance to try and go out and finish the job, but we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did the last two weeks and get everybody on the same page.”

Last week was really the last chance for everyone not to be.