- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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The thought comes to him at least once a week, even now, five years after he stopped playing for Clemson.
"What could we have done differently to change the outcome of that season?" former quarterback Cullen Harper wonders.
Harper was the preseason choice to win ACC Player of the Year honors that season. Clemson was the preseason choice to win the entire league that season. The Tigers started the preseason ranked in the top 10 that season. They opened the season against a ranked SEC opponent that season.
Sounds awfully familiar doesn't it?
That season was 2008, a year Clemson should have been a contender. But rather than meet the high expectations set for them, the Tigers imploded. They lost to No. 24 Alabama 34-10 in the opener, and later dropped games against Maryland and Wake Forest. Midway through the season, Clemson stood at 3-3.
Coach Tommy Bowden was fired. Dabo Swinney took the interim job. Players were dumbstruck with what had happened.
But out of the disappointment rose a new leader, a man determined to get Clemson to a place where it would no longer falter under the heavy weight of expectations.
Former Tigers starting linebacker Brandon Maye recalls Swinney telling the team, "'I know everybody's frustrated. You have the opportunity to walk out right now. But this is something I've been waiting on my whole life. If you hang in there with me, we're going to do great things.' I looked at him, and that attitude from the first day, I knew right there a star was born."
Swinney now has his chance to get Clemson to a place where it can change the perception that all it does is fall flat on its face. "Pulling a Clemson" has become such a part of the college football lexicon, the term "Clemsoning" has a spot in the Urban Dictionary.
Clemson has lost games it should not have under Swinney. But everything he has done over the past four years has led to this moment, the opportunity to potentially play for a national championship. He has one of the top quarterback-receiver duos in the nation. He has a strong offensive line and improving defensive front. He has two of the top coordinators in the nation. Next year will be seen as a rebuilding year. So it is win now or wait a few more years for the Tigers.
That is why the biggest storyline in the ACC headed into the season is whether Clemson can live up to the preseason hype. The Tigers go into Saturday in the same way they did in 2008: as the preseason pick to win the ACC, with the preseason ACC Player of the Year in quarterback Tajh Boyd, a preseason No. 8 ranking and a monster home opener against No. 5 Georgia.
But Clemson is in a far better spot as a program today than it was in 2008. There is a better foundation, better leadership and better accountability. Plus, there has been recent success. Clemson won 11 games in 2012 and an ACC championship in 2011. Back in 2008, it had been 18 years since Clemson won 10 or more games in a season.
"The thing about back in '08, we had never really tasted success," said former Clemson great C.J. Spiller, now with the Buffalo Bills. "We had a lot of firepower coming back on the offensive side of the ball. I think we didn't really know how to handle that, being a top-10 ranked team, picked to win the ACC. We had players picked to win individual awards. We got caught up into it and guys -- not saying we weren't working hard in practice -- but we believed what the outside world was saying instead of going out there and playing. We just fell in the tank."
Maye agrees, saying players fell into the trap of believing things should have been given to them instead of earned. "That season was the sourest taste in my mouth ever," Maye said. "It was a waste of an opportunity." For Harper, that sour taste still remains. After a solid junior season, in which he finished second in the league in passing behind Matt Ryan, he was poised for a breakout year. But he hurt his shoulder twice during the season. Injuries started to take a toll on an already young offensive line, too.
"It was just one of those years, the perfect storm of bad deals and blows of adversity," Harper recalled in a telephone interview recently. "I remember sitting there thinking, 'What else could go wrong? This is out of control.'"
Where folks saw a plethora of skill players -- Spiller and fellow running back James Davis also earned preseason ACC Player of the Year votes -- Harper saw a team that was inexperienced up front. That should have raised red flags. But the offensive line is easy to overlook when so many top-level skill players take the headlines.
"Looking back on it, to this day I still think we trained hard, we worked hard, we thought we were ready," Harper said. "I still think about what happened. It's not one of those things you finish out the season and you totally forget about."
Once Swinney took over midway through the season, he tried to bring the energy and the passion back to his players. He wanted to make things fun. Swinney started playing music during practice. He tried to get players to believe in themselves again. Clemson ended the year 7-6 -- with an appearance in the Gator Bowl.
Swinney kept the head-coaching job, thanks in part to a 31-14 win over South Carolina. That was the last time the Tigers beat their in-state rivals, one of two things that went right all season. The other was elevating Swinney.
The entire program has been remade under his watch. Not only is Clemson winning more, the Tigers are now top recruiters. Swinney has had a top-20 class every year he has been head coach, including three straight top-13 rankings. Swinney also has laid a foundation with trust, accountability, communication and buy-in. He has hired some of the best coordinators in the country.
Everybody in the program shares the same vision. Swinney will not allow outside distractions influence his players, either. For that reason, players are not allowed to use Twitter during the season.
"The thing I like about him, he doesn't let the players get caught up in the hype," Spiller said. "If you think you're just going to show up and beat a team because you're ranked No. 8 in the country, you're going to have another thing coming to you. That's what he preaches. That's what you need because sometimes you can believe all the stuff that's said about your program and think you don't have to work as hard. That's not the case with him. He's going to work twice as hard."
Swinney has vivid memories of the 2008 season but bristles when asked what lessons he learned that he can impart this year. "Don't go 3-3. Win more. Make sure we have great preparation. Just stay to true to what we believe in," Swinney said. "We're not going to do anything different than what we've done the last four years as far as how we prepare our football team. I think the mentality has to be right. Our guys, they expect to win, they believe in each other, in themselves. That really is a whole different world from where we are right now."
We'll see come Saturday.
Dabo Swinney knows what can happen when lofty expectations get the best of a promising team. It happened to Clemson in 2008, and is the reason he became the Tigers’ head coach.