CLEMSON | DABO SWINNEY KNOWS the score.
No, not the one on the scoreboard that stated TCU beat the Tigers 14-10 Saturday. The other score. The one that says his team is .500 after a pair of close losses against ranked opponents.
"Close doesn't count. That's the bottom line," Swinney said. "We've got to win these games to become the program we want to be."
The Tigers posted a pair of perfunctory wins against Middle Tennessee and Boston College, but they lost a 30-27 road game against then-No. 13 Georgia Tech on national television in the season's second week. With No. 14 TCU coming to Death Valley, they had a chance to show they belonged in the Top 25.
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But a pair of missed opportunities deep in TCU territory late in the game kept the Tigers from winning, and the Horned Frogs showed why they're ranked by taking advantage of their best scoring chance in the fourth quarter to pull out the win.
"We didn't make the two or three played we needed to make," Swinney said.
He called the game competitive and the teams evenly-matched, but he lamented that his team failed to state its case for being ranked.
"It's a difficult loss. That right there hurts pretty bad," he said.
Let's face it, 2-2 doesn't look as good as 3-1, and it doesn't feel as good either. He knows the Tigers could just as easily be 4-0 if it had held onto a pair of fourth-quarter leads against strong opponents. It probably doesn't help that USC found a way to win a huge game Thursday night against the country's No. 4 team to improve to 3-1, a win that just may push it into the rankings.
The two words Clemson players kept repeating were "frustrating" and "disappointing." They also realize how close they were, but close isn't good enough when it comes to the win-loss record. If they beat TCU, the Tigers sail into a three-week stretch of Maryland, bye and Virginia -their eyes on a mid-season mark of 5-1.
"It's deflating, but I can't do anything about it," said quarterback Kyle Parker, who played well but couldn't get the Tigers into the end zone one last time. "We've got to forget about it and turn the page."
Parker said every loss is a bitter one, but losing the way they did - with the football on the TCU 17 and 16 on two of the last three possessions and coming away with nothing but a missed field goal and errant fourth-down pass - hurts even more.
"It's not always fair. It's not always how you like it," he said.
And to a man, they all know they can't do much more than look ahead.
"We let Georgia Tech slip away, we let this game slip away," defensive end Ricky Sapp said. "We've got to come out Monday and work on our mistakes."
The Tigers held a 10-7 lead until TCU's Andy Dalton threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Antoine Hicks with 12:46 to play in the game. With wet weather creating problems for the two offenses and the Clemson defense playing well after allowing a touchdown on the Frogs' opening drive, it looked like the Tigers were ready to grab their big win.
"It's disappointing. We know we're capable of playing with any team in the country. That's why we schedule a team like TCU," receiver Jacoby Ford said.
Running back C.J. Spiller insisted the Tigers are an elite team, one that can be in the top 10. But that's not what 2-2 says to poll voters, especially with no big wins on the resume.
"To get over a loss like this, we've got to go out next week and win," Spiller said.
But they've got to beat more than Maryland and Wake Forest and Virginia to really prove something. They got to beat a team that's got a number next to its name, like Miami. Swinney was glad to hear his players haven't lost their confidence after two tough losses.
He also is convinced there's a lot of wins in front of them.
"We'll get there," Swinney said.
There is where the Top 25 teams reside. Knocking on the door isn't going to get them there, however.
As he is well-aware, close doesn't count.