CLEMSON | FROM DABO SWINNEY'S Gatorade-soaked sweatshirt to the players singing the alma mater on the tiger paw at midfield, there were signs everywhere Saturday at Death Valley that the celebration of Clemson's ACC Atlantic Division championship was as sweet as it comes.
Those tears of joy and smiles of bliss were just as much about Clemson's journey as they were about the victory against Virginia that clinched an outright title, one that sends the Tigers into the ACC title game in two weeks.
The journey was a seven-week odyssey that carried Clemson through six consecutive victories, a journey that seemed improbable following a devastating loss back at Maryland on Oct. 3.
That loss dropped Clemson to 2-3. The future was murky at best with a rookie head coach, a first-year starting quarterback and an offensive coordinator so young he looks like a player.
Now, in retrospect, that 24-21 loss to lowly Maryland might have been the best thing to happen to Swinney and his team.
"Absolutely," said senior guard Thomas Austin. "After that Maryland game, we had to do some soul searching. It could have gone either way."
The soul searching began the next Monday. Swinney gathered the entire team that afternoon and had what he now calls a "come to Jesus meeting." There was no shouting. No finger-pointing. No screams about righting a sinking ship.
Rather, Swinney showed the team a videotape. He calls it an "accountability" tape.
"There were a lot of perceptions out there, but there also is reality - and I choose to live in reality," Swinney said. "I wanted to make sure our players chose to listen to the right things and understand that the defense needed to see the offensive issues, and the offense needed to see the defensive issues. And we needed to all get on the same page. We needed to understand what it was going to take for us to go from losing to winning."
A big part of Swinney's emphasis that afternoon had to do with Clemson staying the course. In other words, it was no time to panic.
"We had our opportunities to win every game we lost," Swinney said. "My point to the guys was we're not changing anything. We ain't going to change nothing. We've just got to do it better.
"If we're going to get better at it, it's got to be attention to details, and guys focusing on execution and care about the guy next to you. Understand that (every) play matters, that (every) play impacts the game and impacts my teammates."
One final point Swinney made to his team was that of Clemson's three losses, two were to outstanding football teams. The Tigers dropped a 3-point decision to Georgia Tech, which now is 10-1 and ranked No. 7 nationally, and a 4-point decision to a TCU team that is unbeaten in 11 games and ranked No. 4.
"From that point on, it was a gut check for us," Austin said of the Maryland loss. "You always learn through adversity and through those disappointments, and that's definitely paid off for us. The adversity we went through made us a better team."
Swinney and his staff saw immediate results. Clemson had two outstanding weeks of practice in preparation to play Wake Forest. After soundly defeating Wake, Clemson has run off consecutive wins against Miami, Coastal Carolina, Florida State, N.C. State and, finally, Saturday's 34-21 decision against Virginia.
This is now a Clemson team that believes in itself and is playing with great confidence. Its quarterback, Kyle Parker, plays with the poise of a veteran - as he showed against Virginia with a 19-of-26 passing performance for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Its offense, under the play-calling of 30-year-old offensive coordinator Billy Napier, is a threat to score every time it has the ball.
For good measure, Clemson's defense has proven it can lock down any opponent. After surrendering three touchdowns, 14 first downs and 233 yards in the first half against Virginia, the defense pitched a shutout in the second half, allowing three first downs and 40 yards.
"That is one of the better looking teams we have seen in quite some time," said veteran Virginia coach Al Groh. "They come at you from all directions. The pressure is on every play."
It is a Clemson team that looks and is playing like a champion. It is a Clemson team that looks nothing like the one that hit rock bottom seven weeks ago in a loss at Maryland.
"We didn't all take genius pills and become smart," Swinney said of the transformation. "We just grew as a team."
Saturday, Swinney and his team got to experience the sweet rewards for that growth and the journey it took to become a champion.
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