Dabo Swinney's 'plan to win' starts with effort.
Too often of late, it's ended with item No. 2 on the list: 'win the turnover margin.'
Twice this season, turnovers have turned Clemson's plan to win into a blueprint for losing.
The Tigers' high-speed, possession-based offensive attack thrives on opportunity. When Clemson plays give-away, the Tigers find themselves in trouble.
It happened against Florida State, beginning with a first-play-from-scrimmage fumble by tight end Stanton Seckinger. The Tigers went on to turn the ball over three more times, giving themselves little chance in their ACC Atlantic Division showdown against the Seminoles, who cashed in for 24 points.
Tigers remember every loss
It happened again against South Carolina. A promising opening drive ended when Sammy Watkins took a lateral from Tajh Boyd and threw deep for Adam Humphries in the end zone. Watkins put a bit too much air under the ball, however, and USC's Brison Williams came from the back side to intercept.
It was the first of six Clemson turnovers, which the Gamecocks turned into a 21-0 scoring advantage.
"We gave ourselves no chance," Swinney said.
In a season filled with more highs than lows, Swinney says the Tigers have proved one thing for certain: they're not good enough to beat good teams if they frame their game with turnovers.
For Clemson's coaches, the issue is complicated by the fact that, overall, the Tigers have done an outstanding job of protecting the football.
"We were ahead of where we were this time last year (going into the South Carolina game)," Swinney said. "We had 16, and were a good turnover-margin team, one of the best in the country. We just had a complete blowup in that area. I wish I could point to one thing. For whatever reason those things have come in spurts."
The trend isn't new.
In the last three years seasons, Clemson has seven wins over top 25 teams – the most in any three-year period in school history. Of those seven wins, four have come against top 10 teams, including victories over No. 7 LSU to end the 2012 season and No. 5 Georgia to start the 2013 season.
In that same three-year period, they have lost to six more ranked teams, including back-to-back setbacks to Florida State and South Carolina.
In those 13 games, Clemson is 6-0 when it does not lose the turnover battle, but just 1-6 when it does. The turnover margin in the six victories in which Clemson won the turnover battle is plus-6. The turnover margin in the six games the Tigers lost is minus-14.
"It's about Clemson, and our guys understand that," Swinney said. “When we win the turnover margin, we win. That’s just a fact. That’s what history says - that our guys are good enough. But when we go out there and we make critical mistakes and we lose the turnover margin, we get beat.”
Overall under Swinney, Clemson is 32-3 when it wins the turnover margin.
The 12th-ranked, 10-2 Tigers will face their demon again Friday night when they go against sixth-ranked, 12-1 Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl.
"They're solid and sound in everything they do," Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said of the Buckeyes. "We’ve just got to play well and don’t beat ourselves. That’s the deal in our two losses this year. We turned the ball over, and special teams turned the ball over. Those are things you just can’t do to give yourself a chance.
“You sit and preach it, and you coach it, and you talk it all the time. But at some point, you’ve just got to take care of the football.”
This week in Miami, Swinney was asked about what the Tigers are doing to reverse the turnover plague.
He said it's not a matter of working longer or harder, but of playing smarter and executing better.
“We could not possibly do more drills on taking care of the ball," Swinney said. “In our preseason study, our goal was to have 17-18 turnovers over the course of the season. That's national championship caliber. We were right there with 16 heading into the South Carolina game."
In his final game as a Tiger, Tajh Boyd is the point man for offensive ball protection.
To beat the Buckeyes, "I think Tajh needs to play well,” Morris said. “Coming off of the South Carolina game, he just needs to play better. He had a great bowl performance last year against LSU. I think he’s done a good job to this point. He’s a competitor.”
Boyd is eager for his final college challenge.
“It’s special - it’s just been a great career, but you’re only really remembered by your last game," Boyd said. "When we go out here we want to make the most of it. I just want to go out there and lay it on the field. When I come out of this game there needs to be no regrets and nobody questioning my toughness and my competitiveness.”
Or his ability to execute a key competent of Swinney's plan to win.