CLEMSON - If you asked Clemson fans this week to define their football team's season, most would probably shift between success and satisfaction.
It is hard to argue Dabo Swinney's first full season as the Tigers' coach could be measured as anything but progress. Tommy Bowden's decade-long tenure ended because he could not guide the program to an Atlantic Division crown and ACC title game berth.
Come health (C.J. Spiller's turf toe) and high waters (rain seemingly every home game), Clemson got there, stringing together a six-game winning streak during which it shed its penchant coming up short. Furthermore, the Tigers came within a defensive stop against Georgia Tech of claiming its first ACC title since 1991 and a trip to the Orange Bowl.
For that matter, Swinney is fond of saying he lives in reality, not perception.
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And the reality is that Clemson's season will be shaped by its loss to USC, a week before its ACC championship defeat - a two-loss spiral that has funneled the Tigers into a ho-hum 2006 Music City Bowl rematch with Kentucky - where they stand almost nothing to gain and more credibility to lose.
The State hands out its Clemson postseason awards.
MVP OFFENSE: RB C.J. SPILLER
Spiller came up short of being one of the five Heisman Trophy finalists, which speaks to two variables - regionalized voting and what criteria voters considered in making their selections.
There wasn't a player who drew more attention from defensive coordinators or changed field position more drastically through his return prowess. To think what Spiller might have looked like had he not suffered a turf toe injury.
MVP DEFENSE: S DEANDRE MCDANIEL
McDaniel embodied Clemson's defense through the good times and bad.
For the first two-thirds of the season, he was the swashbuckling playmaker who was a threat to steal any downfield pass or levy a de-cleating hit. But down the stretch, his presence was characterized more by costly missed tackles and assignments.
Still, the first-team All-ACC selection finished tied for second nationally in interceptions (eight) and could enter the NFL Draft.
TOP FRESHMAN: QB KYLE PARKER
It seems ridiculous to consider someone in his fourth college semester a rookie, but it is important to note that Parker had barely taken a practice snap until last December.
Parker's progress after the Maryland loss was commonly cited as the chief reason for Clemson's surge.
TOP PLAY: PARKER'S WINNING TD PASS TO JACOBY FORD AT MIAMI
McDaniel's icing interception and Babe Ruthian called shot on FSU quarterback Christian Ponder left an indelible impression. And you could take your pick of Spiller highlights.
But what got the Tigers over the proverbial hump was the 26-yard game-winner in overtime at No. 8 Miami. It was indicative of the improved preparation and maturity the team displayed after the bye week, from the route adjustment made on the sidelines before the series to Parker's rifle throw - similar to one he chucked high in the near-miss loss to TCU.
BEST COACHING MOVE: INVOLVING TIGHT ENDS IN THE PASSING GAME
Other nominees included reshuffling the line to create depth on the right side and using the nickel as the base defense because of a linebacker shortage.
Yet because there's no tangible proof coordinator Billy Napier was given greater play-calling latitude after Clemson's 2-3 start, we'll go with one of his influences - leaning heavily on tight ends Michael Palmer and Dwayne Allen when it became obvious the team's receivers not named Ford weren't ready for the responsibility. Palmer wound up unofficially leading the team in clutch catches.
GAME OF THE YEAR: THE 39-33 LOSS TO GEORGIA TECH IN THE ACC CHAMPIONSHIP
OK, so the caveat is that the Miami victory was Clemson's most inspiring performance.
The mantra for the past few years, though, has been ACC title game or bust. Well, the Tigers finally made it and put up a respectable fight to boot.
MOST MEMORABLE QUOTES
"If we can harness that effort, that will to win, we're going to have a special year. There's no doubt in my mind. Maybe we'll see this team down the road. This was a good football team. We're going to be a good football team."
- Swinney, after Clemson rallied from a 24-point deficit in a 30-27 loss at Georgia Tech in Week 2
"You should have been in the press box. I thought it was 'Animal House.' I've never seen guys hugging like that before."
- Napier, following the Miami triumph
"A lot of people probably didn't want me to get this job. Probably a lot of people still don't want me to have this job. But I got it, and we're division champs."
- Swinney, after the victory against Virginia