Interim coach Dabo Swinney: Swinney took a team in the emotional gutter and guided it to a 4-2 finish, bowl eligibility and — last but not least — a dominant victory against instate rival USC.
The offensive line: Ball-carriers rushed for 200 yards. It is no coincidence the ground game has improved during the five-game stretch in which the same five linemen started every week. What might have been had coaches stuck with Thomas Austin at left guard and Bobby Hutchinson at center at the season’s start.
The seniors: When the coaching change occurred, it would have been easy for high-profile guys such as James Davis, Michael Hamlin, Cullen Harper and Aaron Kelly to go through the motions. They didn’t. While their bowl destination will not match preseason expectations, they showed more resolve than many thought Clemson had.
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What went right
Just about everything Swinney and play-caller Billy Napier dialed up offensively. Six first-half plays produced 20 yards or more. The trick “Cock-a-doodle-doo” play produced a 50-yard touchdown. And the decision to use H-back Chad Diehl as a lead blocker threw USC off-balance. Coordinator Vic Koenning’s defense reduced USC tight end Jared Cook and receiver Kenny McKinley to insignificant factors.
What went wrong
Beyond the recurring issue of burning timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties, there isn’t a lot for fans to grouse about after a win like Saturday.
Clemson, which entered the game ranked among the nation’s 10-worst third-down conversion offenses (28.6 percent), converted 8 or 14 (57.1 percent). Of those eight, five required the Tigers to gain 5 or more yards.
“I don’t know what more you could ask for, coach Swinney has it all. He’s got the respect of the players, he’s turned this program around in six weeks, and the team is behind him and believing.” — Harper
Some credit for Clemson’s turnaround must go to Bowden for falling on his sword after the Wake Forest loss. Though he preemptively resigned because he saw the writing on the wall, his stepping aside lifted the negativity that had engulfed the Tigers, allowing the season to be relatively salvaged.
Clemson (7-5) expects to learn its bowl destination on Sunday after the ACC title game loser is determined. Program insiders speculate that the Tigers will land in the Dec. 27 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, where they would be pitted against a Big Ten team. Other possibilities include the Gator, Music City and Meineke Car Care Bowls.
— By Paul Strelow