CLEMSON - The annual trap has been set, and Dabo Swinney is trying to steer Clemson clear by imparting tunnel vision.
Among the messages being regurgitated leading up to Saturday's showdown with Florida State:
- It is the season's most important game, and the only one worth worrying about - as was the case with Coastal Carolina last week.
- Being the most fired-up team won't make the difference; being the most prepared team will.
- The statistics reflect that Florida State's defense has been porous, but that doesn't mean the Seminoles lack the athletes to conquer Clemson.
All standard stuff.
Except it gets to the root of why the Tigers believe they have taken the bait the past few years, precluding them from capturing the ACC title that has eluded the program since 1991.
"None of us are going to sit here and say we're not thinking about the ACC championship and the Orange Bowl," senior tight end Michael Palmer said. "Yeah, we understand that's within our grasp. But we have to take care of business to get there."
"We've just had this mind-set where we were always coming up short and, 'Here things are going wrong again.' That's something we've really tried to change this year. You can't have the attitude you're scared to lose or we're going to mess this up again. We're going out there with a completely new attitude saying we're going to win and believe we can win."
Consecutive conference victories have positioned Clemson (5-3, 3-2 ACC) in the driver's seat of the Atlantic Division.
If the Tigers win out against Florida State, at N.C. State and home against Virginia, they are guaranteed a berth in the ACC title game in Tampa, Fla. The only other team in the division with two conference losses is Boston College; Clemson holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its 25-7 triumph against the Eagles in Death Valley on Sept. 19.
There is wiggle room if Clemson loses Saturday.
Yet the pressure of holding serve arguably has been the biggest obstacle for Clemson in recent years, fueling its cycle of choke jobs. Swinney offered nothing to dispel that assessment Tuesday, intimating that how the Tigers handle "the moment" figures to play a vital role in whether the team breaks through.
"Certainly everyone understands the importance of (this game)," Swinney said. "But focus on what it takes to win the ball game as opposed to the hype. All that other jazz - what time you're playing, what TV station you're on - all that stuff is for other people to get excited about. We're a 5-3 football team that just needs to get better; that's what we are.
"I'll get excited when they measure us for some rings."
In 2006, the Tigers acted as if their lopsided defeat at Virginia Tech had wrecked their season, except the following week's home loss to Maryland levied just as much damage in keeping Clemson out of the title game.
In 2007, they likewise laid an egg in a 13-3 loss at Georgia Tech early in the season and were embarrassed at home by Virginia Tech the following week. The Tigers beat three noncontending ACC teams in a row to rally for a winner-takes-all finale with Boston College, which they lost on Eagles quarterback Matt Ryan's late touchdown pass and Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly's infamous drop near the end zone in the final minute.
Clemson then folded early under the weight of last season's heightened expectations, buckling as they blew a cozy second-half lead to Maryland. The Tigers then scored seven points in a defeat at Wake Forest, leading to Tommy Bowden's resignation days later.
"We were looking too far ahead back then," senior running back C.J. Spiller said. "But now we're taking it one game at a time and understand we control our own destiny."