CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney is fond of saying “they remember November.”
Clemson would rather forget November 2011. Following an 8-0 start that saw the Tigers rise as high as No.5 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, the 11th month of the year brought an implosion.
Clemson went 1-2, was outscored 99-57 and committed eight turnovers while generating none.
They’re in similar position as November looms again: 7-1 following Thursday’s 42-13 thumping of Wake Forest. Clemson rose to No.10 in Sunday’s Associated Press top 25 heading into Saturday’s trip to Duke.
Swinney is taking nothing for granted.
“The biggest thing is a matter of staying focused,” he said. “Guys do remember last year and they gained some experience. They understand we’ve got to continue to stay committed to doing things the right way. We’ve got to finish the race. We can’t look up and say we’ve arrived, get fat, happy and content. Every single day is a challenge and we’ve got to win every day.”
Through eight games, Clemson has committed eight turnovers while forcing 16. The Tigers finished 2011 with 24 turnovers while forcing 23; over the final six games, they committed 16 but forced only six.
“We’ve done a great job taking care of the ball – that’s one area where we’ve improved as a team,” Swinney said. “Last season down the stretch we literally became a turnover machine. That was the No.1 most critical factor in not having a good finish.”
Clemson does not control its ACC destiny: the Tigers must win out and hope Florida State loses again to win the Atlantic Division and advance to the ACC title game. Even if FSU wins out, another BCS bowl remains a possibility: at-large teams must win at least nine regular-season games and finish in the top 14 in the final BCS regular-season standings.
“We don’t control the ACC but we can control the season we have,” Swinney said. “If Florida State gets beat and we’re not taking care of our business, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of what Florida State does, we have a chance to have a great year. We have a chance to set the all-time record for (consecutive) wins at home (the current streak of 11 is tied for the all-time long), have back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since (1987-1990) and a chance to get to a BCS bowl.
“There are a lot of great things out for this football team. What we have to do is focus on the here and now. We have to be committed to the mentality we’ve had. We do that, when all is said and done, we’ll have the opportunity to have a really special season.”
Swinney said the Wake victory was “a very sound game and a complete game in all phases, with a lot of positive improvement.” Junior quarterback Tajh Boyd, who set a program single-game record with 428 passing yards, threw to eight different receivers and tossed five touchdowns to five different receivers.
“Tajh was outstanding –he played his best game in a while,” Swinney said.
Players had Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, and Swinney said his team was “in pretty good shape” injury-wise. Sophomore cornerback Garry Peters left the game with a side injury, but could have returned. Sophomore corner Bashaud Breeland missed the game with an abdominal strain, and Swinney hopes he’ll be able to return to practice Monday.
Swinney was also asked about South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a dislocated knee and ligament damage in a frightening injury Saturday.
“It absolutely took my breath away,” Swinney said. “I was watching it. I hurt for him, his family, his teammates. This is a guy who, to me, represents all the good things college football should be about. He’s a guy I know personally, a class man, always has been. It’s devastating. I know how hard he’s worked and the season he’s having. If there’s anyone I’d bet on to return, it’s Marcus Lattimore.
“It’ll be a long process for him to get healthy, much less play football again, but I’d put my money on Marcus Lattimore in a heartbeat.
“Hopefully he can comes to terms with this and do everything he can to stay healthy and well. He’s a class individual, a great player and my prayers go up for him. He’s a winner in every regard.”