- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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For a game many thought would have Atlantic Division implications just a month ago, the game between Clemson and NC State on Saturday does not present much in the way of ACC drama.
Florida State should clinch the division with a win over heavy underdog Maryland.
NC State already is bowl eligible.
Clemson is already bowl eligible -- though the Tigers need to keep winning to keep up their hopes of getting an at-large BCS bid.
Could it be that this matchup is just your average, run of the mill November game? No such thing as run of the mill in the ACC. Let us go back a year ago. NC State handed Clemson its worst defeat to that point in the season, 37-13, a loss that did the Tigers no favors with its national perception.
Though Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says revenge is not on the minds of his players, it is extremely important for his team to continue to play well and win these types of games -- contests they may have lost in the past.
"This team has learned how to be consistent," Swinney said this week. "Last year’s team, with 42 freshmen, that team learned how to win. Some of the games weren’t pretty, but they learned how to win football games, how to have the right mentality.
"This team, through all of that process they went through last year, has learned how to handle success better and learn how to be a consistent performer, a consistent player, and in turn, be a consistent team. They’ve bought into those things. That’s what we’ve focused on."
One of the big focuses this season has been improvement on defense. In the first half of the year, some of the positives were incremental. But the Tigers have made large strides in the last four games -- giving up an average of 15 points per game. In the first six games, that average was 27.3. Clemson gave up more than 350 yards of offense in each of its first games this season; that has happened just once in the last four games.
"We had a season-low mental errors this past week," Swinney said. "Collectively as a group, we’ve matured so much. We’re not busting like we were earlier in the year. Our linebackers are playing at a high level for us and the secondary has improved. We’re tackling better. That’s all a result of the experience factor, learning a new system. Now we’ve played 10 ballgames and I’d be pretty disappointed if we weren’t better. We’re a work in progress, and I felt like the first half of the season we had to just fight our way through it but I thought we would be much improved the second half, and that’s how it turned out."
Where Clemson has been more consistent than ever, that is not the case for the Wolfpack. This is a group that got torched by a Tennessee team winless in SEC play; then took down then-No. 3 Florida State; then lost badly to a Virginia team in the midst of a six-game losing streak.
The Wolfpack are certainly capable of winning this game, the way they did a season ago.
"I don't think that this team will be intimidated or afraid to let everything go in this football game," coach Tom O'Brien said. "We're in a situation [where] we've got a lot to play for, and you always want to be challenged. If Clemson's the best or near the best in the conference, let's go see what we can do."
4dDavid M. Hale