As November opens, Clemson eyeing big goals

Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins joins teammates in a pregame huddle before kickoff at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins joins teammates in a pregame huddle before kickoff at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Every game an obstacle for Clemson

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— Tuesday morning , Dabo Swinney talked about what he really wanted for his Clemson football program.

Swinney sets five constant goals for the Tigers – win the opener, win the Atlantic Division, win the ACC, win the state championship and win the bowl game – but above all else, he wants a crystal football to join the one brought home in 1981 following the program’s only national title.

To do that, Clemson needs consistency – two, three, four, five 10-win seasons, back to back.

“That’s something this program has lacked,” Swinney said. “It’s the next step. We need to build consistency. That’s what great programs do. The only way is to have a great finish. We can finish with another BCS bowl bid. These are all things that are out there for our team.”

Clemson doesn’t control its ACC destiny, but the Tigers enter November with a shot at a special season. Heading into tonight’s 7 p.m., ESPN2-televised game at Duke (6-3, 3-2 ACC) the Tigers are No.10 in the Associated Press poll, No.13 in the BCS standings and 7-1 overall, 4-1 in ACC play.

The biggest challenge as the Tigers begin the final month of the regular season? Themselves.

“There’s so much out there for us to gain and we don’t want to let it pass us by in any sense,” said junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “Every goal we had coming into the season is still on the board, still attainable. For us it’s a matter of executing the game plan, knowing what we’re trying to accomplish, knowing what we’re focused on and taking care of business.”

A year ago, Clemson collapsed in November. The Tigers began the month 8-1, but went 1-2 and were outscored collectively 96-57, with blowout losses to N.C. State and South Carolina and a last-second, Atlantic Division-clinching win over Wake Forest.

Swinney said his team became “a turnover machine” down the stretch of 2011, with 16 giveaways against only six takeaways in the final six games. He thinks a young roster – 63 of Clemson’s 85 scholarship players are freshmen and sophomores – has learned from the experience.

“That’s usually the case,” he said. “Not that we didn’t have great leadership last year – that’s one reason we got our feet on the ground, won 10 games and the ACC title. But I felt we got a little distracted last year. We lost our focus a little bit, weren’t paying as much attention to detail and next thing you know, there were things we weren’t doing well that we had been doing well.”

Clemson must win its next three ACC games – Duke, Maryland and N.C. State, the final two at home –and hope Florida State loses to Virginia Tech or Maryland (both on the road) to make the ACC title game.

However, the Tigers do have a realistic shot at a BCS bid should they finish 11-1 with a win over South Carolina.

Any team that wins at least nine games and finishes in the top 14 of the BCS standings is eligible for an at-large bid, and Clemson’s strong travel reputation plus its exciting offensive style could make it an attractive choice.

“We honestly realistically thought we could be an undefeated team. The next closest thing is trying to go 11-1, 10-1 and taking care of business,” Boyd said. “We’ve got this goal out there we’re trying to reach. We’ve got high expectations for ourselves, for this program and for this university. We’ve got to go out there and take care of business.”

Duke is coming off a 48-7 loss at Florida State, but the Blue Devils are bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994 and will make only their third bowl appearance since 1961.

“ I’m sure it hasn’t come as fast as maybe he would like, but it’s great, from the outside looking in, seeing them have the type of season that they’ve had,” Swinney said. “To know that they’ve already earned a bowl berth for the first time in a long, long time, that’s a real compliment to the players for buying into what they’re trying to do and putting in the hard work.”

Senior quarterback Sean Renfree leads a quick-tempo pass attack keyed by senior receiver Connor Vernon (54 receptions, 761 yards, 5 TD). Vernon is the ACC’s all-time receptions leader, passing former Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly, who set the mark in 2008.

It will be a test for a defense which has improved over the past two weeks, holding Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to an average of 15 points. Clemson has seven sacks in that span, but Duke’s line has protected Renfree well, allowing 10 sacks through nine games (second-best in the ACC).

“Their offensive line is very sound,” Swinney said. “(Renfree) will get rid of the ball. He doesn’t hold it and creates in-space situations. We have to do a great job tackling in space.”

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