CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson coach Dabo Swinney thinks the 10th-ranked Tigers have grown since their late-season collapse of last fall and have the experience to avoid a similar slide this season.
"Consistency is something this program has lacked," Swinney said Tuesday. "That's the next thing we've got to do."
The quest starts Saturday when the Tigers (7-1, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) travel to Duke (6-3, 2-2). Clemson appeared ready to break through a year ago when it stood 8-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country. The Tigers were in the thick of BCS title talk because of a record-setting offense that looked unstoppable.
Then things fell apart.
Clemson lost three of its final four games in the regular season. While the team rebounded to win the ACC crown, Clemson was demolished in prime time in an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Clemson's already handled several obstacles it hasn't in the past since its lone loss, a 49-37 defeat at No. 9 Florida State, to get itself back in the top 10. Swinney said the players have learned from last year's problems and look forward to continuing their strong play.
"I just think the experience they've had is going to pay off for them," Swinney said. "That's usually the case."
Tigers center Dalton Freeman said Clemson went nine games without a break last year and bumps and bruises began to take a toll. There were also several underclassmen at key positions, he said, like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins whose production tailed off and mistakes increased as the season wore on.
"They hadn't been through it before and I don't know if they were mentally ready" for the stretch run, Freeman said.
Freeman says those players haven't forgotten what they went through and are focused on building on their four-game win streak.
For Boyd, this is a chance to prove he won't have a drop off in production the way he did last fall. Boyd had passed for 24 touchdowns and three interceptions in Clemson's perfect start. He had four touchdowns and seven interceptions the final four games.
Boyd said he's a much more mature player this season and doesn't spend much time thinking about what went wrong for him last fall.
"It's a growth in the leadership role and having these guys look up to me in any situation whether we're down or up," he said. "So my job is to stay calm, stay poised and let the game come to me."
Boyd's done that this season. He leads the league with more than 326 yards of total offense per game. He also tops the ACC with 20 TD passes against six interceptions.
Boyd threw for a record 428 yards in Clemson's 42-13 victory over Wake Forest on Oct. 25. He tied his own school record with five touchdown passes to five different receivers — a fact Boyd's especially proud of.
"I think that's when we're at our best," he says, "when everyone touches the ball."
Clemson got a major boost against Wake Forest from Watkins, an All-American who had struggled to match his freshman production as a sophomore. Watkins had eight catches for a school record 202 yards and his first receiving touchdown of the year.
Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris believes Watkins is rounding into form at exactly the right time to keep the Tigers rolling.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils will have their hands full trying to slow down the Tigers.
"Clemson is an ACC championship team," he said. "They've got players that have performed at that level and continue to perform at that level."
Duke is Clemson's last road game and the Tigers finish ACC play at Death Valley against Maryland and North Carolina, who are combined 2-3 in conference play so far.
Clemson closes the season at home against rival South Carolina, which lost star rusher Marcus Lattimore to a season-ending knee injury last week. The Tigers still need help in another Florida State loss to win the Atlantic Division and defend their ACC title. A perfect November might also bring Clemson a second straight BCS bowl, Swinney said.
"We are pretty high (in the rankings) right now with a loss," Swinney said. "We are about where we should be. If we can finish strong, we'll have every opportunity that's out there."
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report from Durham, N.C.