Tajh Boyd's apartment was a rotten mess.
Following Clemson's 31-17 loss at Georgia Tech on Oct. 29, 2011 -- a game in which Boyd threw one touchdown and two interceptions to bring an 8-0 start to a screeching halt -- somebody egged his campus home. Boyd's roommates hastily tried to clean it up before he got back from Atlanta, but they weren't quick enough.
With one loss, the national title talk surrounding the Tigers ended, and the education of an immature Heisman hopeful began.
"It was an eye-opener because everything had come so easy, everything had just gone perfect," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. "It couldn't have gone any better and all of a sudden, instead of everybody patting him on the back, and everybody writing great things and saying great things and him being the toast of the town, now he's the goat. That was a time where his skin was thickened."
As No. 3 Clemson prepares to host No. 5 Florida State on Saturday in what is the most important game of the ACC regular season, Boyd's maturation process might be the biggest advantage the Tigers have over the Seminoles and untested rookie phenom Jameis Winston.
In a game that will feature two of the nation's most talented quarterbacks -- a rising star versus an accomplished record-setter -- Boyd has the intangible benefit of having been in this position before.
Like Winston, Boyd understands the pressure of being a young quarterback shouldering the lofty expectations of winning a national championship.
Unlike Winston, Boyd has felt the crushing disappointment of failing to realize those expectations, has learned the lessons from those losses, and has rededicated himself with the aim of finally fulfilling them.
Boyd's experience in marquee games, in both wins and losses, coupled with his desire to leave a legacy at Clemson, could be the difference between these teams Saturday night in a game that will propel the winner to the top of the ACC Atlantic standings and further validate it as a national title contender.
For Winston, the story is just beginning.
For Boyd, this season is the last chance.
Whatever happens at the next level happens, but here at Clemson, I want people to say he gave us everything he had every time he stepped on that field. That's what I want to be remembered for.
--Clemson QB Tajh Boyd
"It would put a cap on everything," he said of winning an ACC title and national title this fall. "That stuff would be great, but I don't ever want anyone to question the way I play the game, especially at this level. Whatever happens at the next level happens, but here at Clemson, I want people to say he gave us everything he had every time he stepped on that field. That's what I want to be remembered for."
Those within the program say Boyd has already accomplished that.
"He doesn't have to play another snap," Swinney said. "He's left a legacy already, but he's not done."
Clemson's offensive staff meetings begin around 7:30 each morning.
Around 8:30 a.m., Boyd strolls in. He usually steals one of the assistants' seats ("but that's OK," says offensive coordinator Chad Morris).
"He comes in and makes himself at home and really just becomes one of us," Morris said. "That's what's great about it. We don't change anything we talk about, how we talk about it, when he's in there."
No, this is not normal.
Boyd is the only player who attends the staff meetings. The other players, of course, have class. Boyd has one online class remaining and usually wraps up most of his academic obligations on Sundays. He spends the bulk of the week in the football offices in Memorial Stadium, working out, studying film, and listening to the coaches.
"He didn't come back here to sit around the house and watch reruns of 'Family Feud,'" Swinney said. "He wants to be great. That's just him."
When Swinney meets with his entire staff, Boyd often sits in a separate room with a graduate assistant, who briefs him on the Tigers' next opponent. By the time the offensive assistants regroup, Boyd is usually watching film already, with his notepad out, listening intently while studying what's written on the whiteboard.
Final decisions concerning play-calling belong to Morris, but, as he puts it, Boyd has free rein to "weigh in heavily" on the game plan each week.
"There's things he likes, or he'll say, 'Look, I really like this,' or he'll say, 'Coach, I don't feel that,' or, 'I'm not comfortable with that,'" Morris said. "He's got open input in every bit of our game-plan decision-making. It's pretty cool, I'll tell you. It's really unique. You usually have your players come in, and you don't get them very long, but when we have Tajh, because of the way the schedule is set up, we pretty much have him all morning long."
The relationship between Morris and Boyd is as unique as Boyd's seat in the meeting room. They text each other during the Thursday night games on ESPN, or call to see if the other saw a particular play, and what he thought about it. At times, they'll even help each other through practice.
"He'll put his arm around me and say, 'Hey Coach, I need a little help today, you gotta pick me up today, I'm dragging,'" Morris said. "Or, on the flip side of it, I'll go to him and say, 'Hey 10, you gotta get me goin' today. It's been a long weekend, long day. I need you to pick me up today, 10, get me going.' It's a mutual bond. It's hard to explain. It's like having one of your own."
They'll call or text each other after practice, and Boyd has spent plenty of time at the Morris house, watching games or film, or just "kicking back." The coach and quarterback have more in common than their desire to win.
"He and I really talk a lot about each other's pressures we have in our lives," Morris said. "We'll talk about that. I'll share with him at times. I remember one conversation we had, and I asked him one day, I said, 'Do you ever feel like you have to be perfect in everything you do?' It just went from there. I said, 'because I do.' You build those relationships through battles you fight on the field."
That bond helps explain why Clemson's offense is ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring offense, passing offense and total offense. Since Morris was hired, Clemson has a 27-6 record -- also Boyd's mark as the starting quarterback. During that span Clemson has averaged 37.8 points, averaged 482 yards, run 79 plays per game and gained 308 yards per game through the air.
With Boyd leaving next year and Morris' desire to someday be a head coach, every Saturday is one worth savoring on the Clemson sideline.
Before he could learn how to win at an elite level, Boyd first had to learn how to lose.
It wasn't just the 2011 Georgia Tech game that taught him.
Clemson, which had ascended as high as No. 5 in the country that year, went on to lose to NC State and rival South Carolina before capping the once-Cinderella season with a humiliating 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. It was a miserable end following a magical start.
Boyd, who went 43-2 and won two state titles as a starting quarterback at Phoebus High School in Hampton, Va. -- including one he won while playing with a torn ACL as a senior -- didn't know how to respond.
"You go through that, and you're in a slump," Boyd said. "We lost four out of the last six games that year. It was a time for me when I needed somebody to talk to, and I felt like I was alone. That stage right there helped develop me into the person I am right now and the player I am right now, especially in this position. All of those things helped shape me for sure. It was good to go through that process and just learn from it because you learn how the world works. You learn everything you want to know about life in the game of football."
With help from an inner circle that included Morris, Swinney, Boyd's parents -- who moved to nearby Seneca, S.C., when Boyd enrolled in classes as a freshman at Clemson -- and his closest friends, Boyd recommitted himself that January to improving.
"He became much more coachable, much more coachable last year than he was his first year," Swinney said. "He's even more coachable now. I love to yell at Tajh. I love it. He just smiles. That first year, he'd get mad, or he'd pout. Now he'll smile and come over and say, 'Man I love you, coach.' That's just how he is. That's a maturation process he's been through. He can handle success, he can handle failure. He's got a great confidence in himself."
Boyd's ability to rebound from adversity began last season and was evident for all to see after Clemson lost to South Carolina 27-17, the Tigers' fourth consecutive loss to their in-state rival.
Instead of folding after a contest in which he threw two costly interceptions, Boyd responded by playing the best game of his career against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. LSU coach Les Miles called Boyd's performance in the 25-24 upset "heroic," and "phenomenal." He completed 36 of 50 passes for 346 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the No. 8 team in the country. He set career highs for attempts and completions and won the game's MVP award.
"That's just the example of his growth right there," Swinney said. "In '11, it was like one bad play, and you could count on three more coming -- bam-bam-bam."
Now he's setting records at that pace.
Boyd established nine new ACC standards in 2012, and he's still chasing more.
He scored the 100th touchdown of his career this season against Wake Forest, a game in which he had three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. He now has 109 for his career, trailing only Philip Rivers of NC State (112). After last Saturday's victory over Boston College, Boyd is now 17-1 at Memorial Stadium.
On Saturday against Florida State, he'll have a chance at another mark. Boyd has led Clemson to seven wins over top-25 teams in his career as a starter, tied for the most in Clemson history.
"Goodness, look at the records he's written here at Clemson in just three years," Morris said. "I couldn't imagine if he played four years, what kind of records could this guy have broken?"
The records will go a long way toward cementing his legacy, but they're not why Boyd considers his senior season at Clemson priceless.
"This is an important year for me," he said. "This is the last go-around. You see how much Clemson has grown in the support and the excitement of football in general, and the best thing for me is being able to come back to school. Because I do talk to these guys at the next level who are playing right now, and those guys miss it. They miss the relationships. Those guys get paid big dollars, but it has nothing to do with that. It's the chemistry they have with the guys, going out and playing for each other more so than playing for a check. I think all of those things add up to how those emotions are felt. Getting a chance to do it one last time, it's special, especially playing in the Valley.
"This is the reason I came to school, right here," he said. "Just the moments I'm having with my teammates out there, going on the road, getting wins, celebrating, dancing in the locker room, having fun with it."
One of his teammates' favorite things to do is stay in Boyd's apartment and play "FIFA 14." Sometimes Boyd will sneak out and go see a movie by himself. Occasionally, they'll go to his mom Carla's house, where she'll make more than 100 of her famous meatballs to feed Boyd and his friends.
Carla Boyd has a DVD of her son's announcement on national signing day that he was attending Clemson, and she's watched it repeatedly.
"He told Clemson he wanted to get them back on the map, bring some championships, win some ACC titles, and it's like happening before my eyes," she said. "I was going back to that video and it makes me have tears because he's putting it right before your eyes."
Which is even more remarkable, considering Tajh Boyd never intended to go to Clemson. The Tigers weren't even on his list. He was committed to Tennessee -- until former coach Phil Fulmer was fired and Lane Kiffin was hired to replace him. Then it was down to Ohio State and Oregon.
Thanks to a relationship between Clemson assistant Danny Pearman and former Phoebus High coach Bill Dee, who is now the offensive line coach at Old Dominion, the Tigers were able to make a late pitch. Boyd found something particularly appealing about playing for a first-year coach in Swinney.
"I'm all about trying to leave a legacy," Boyd said. "I was the same way in high school, same way here. I had an opportunity to be the first quarterback [Swinney] has ever signed. For me, that's a significant moment. Regardless of however long he coaches football, or if he goes to the NFL, I'll always be the first quarterback he signed as a head coach."
And he'll always be remembered as one of the best, but he's not done yet.