A year ago, Clemson’s undefeated season took an abrupt turn after eight games.
Coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday this team is better prepared to handle success at 7-1, ranked 13th by the BCS.
“We don’t really focus much on polls, any of that stuff,” he said during his weekly media briefing. “At the end of November, hopefully, we’ll be a relevant football team from a national standpoint.
“Only way to do that is to take care of the task at hand.”
The first task offers both unique and rare opportunities. Unique in that it becomes the first night game between Duke and Clemson, with a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, and rare because the Blue Devils, a football doormat in the Atlantic Coast Conference, qualified for a bowl game two weeks ago with a win against North Carolina.
Perched atop the ACC Coastal, tied with Miami and UNC, Duke (6-3, 3-2) has not lost at home this season, and the series has been pocked by occasional Clemson missteps. In 2004, the Blue Devils beat Clemson with a field goal as time expired, 16-13. In 1989, a team coached by Steve Spurrier knocked off seventh-ranked Clemson, 21-17.
These are lessons ambitious teams must commit to memory to avoid veering off the road again.
A win at Duke would give Clemson a 4-1 record away from home. Clemson has won four away from home once in 15 years (2007).
“I felt like that we got a little distracted last year, lost our focus a little bit, not quite as much attention to details,” Swinney said of the 8-0 team that lost three of its last four games. “The things we were doing well, we weren’t doing well.”
Most encouraging has been evidence of steady improvement, he said. A 42-13 win at Wake Forest consisted of quarterback Tajh Boyd’s first 400-yard passing performance, a record performance by receiver Sammy Watkins and the best effort by a defense that struggled to get off the field the first five games.
Consistency, regardless the opponent, becomes the challenge whether an underdog at Florida State or a 12-point favorite at Duke. Consistency from season to season also is important. No. 10 Clemson has been ranked in the polls for 23 consecutive weeks, the third-longest streak in school history. Six other teams have longer streaks.
“That, to me, is a step in the right direction,” Swinney said. “We want to be consistent.
“Consistency, I think, is something this program has lacked,” he said. “We’re heading in that direction.”
Swinney tends to dismiss the mechanics, though he conceded for the first time, “I want to be a team that, when it’s all said and done, we were in the mix. We need to be a ranked football team. We need to be one of those top 15, 20 teams in the country year in and year out.”
From his current perch, he likes the team’s chances.
“When it’s all said and done, we’ll be where we need to be,” Swinney said. “If we were 8-0 right now, we’d be up there high. We’re pretty high right now with a loss, so I think we’re about where we should be, to be honest with you.
“If we can finish strong, we’ll have every opportunity that’s out there, and a chance to have a real special season.”
TIGERS VS. BLUE DEVILS
WHO: Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) vs. Duke (6-3, 3-2)
WHERE: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, N.C.
WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m.
RADIO: WZMJ-FM 93.1
LINE: Clemson by 13 1/2