CLEMSON, S.C. – No matter how often Clemson's Dabo Swinney replays last season's game against North Carolina State in his mind he can't figure out what went wrong.
One moment, the top-10 Tigers were locked in a tight game, up 3-0 on the Wolfpack early in the second quarter. The next, Clemson trailed 27-3 at the half and on the way to their second loss in three games.
"It was like, bam!" Swinney remembered this week.
The 11th-ranked Tigers (9-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) finish league play against North Carolina State (6-4, 3-3) on Saturday and will try to rebound from the 37-13 loss that was part of a late swoon.
Clemson was one of college football's biggest surprises in 2011 after starting 8-0. But the Tigers dropped three of their final four regular-season games, including the stunning loss at Carter-Finley Stadium. It was a defeat that hasn't set well with the team in the time since.
"As an offense, we were pretty much embarrassed," Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd. "It should be a fun game."
Unless Clemson's high-speed attack stalls out against the Wolfpack as it did a year ago. Boyd threw two interceptions and the Tigers fumbled twice, one each by Boyd and ex-Clemson tailback Mike Bellamy. The result was a 27-point second quarter for North Carolina State, the team's best output in six years.
Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien knows what his team accomplished last season doesn't matter much, especially with the Tigers offense out-performing their record-setting showing from a year ago.
"They've got playmakers at every spot on offense, a really tough challenge for the defense to defend," O'Brien said.
Boyd leads the ACC in passing yards and total offense. Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins is second in the country with 14 touchdown catches. Tailback Andre Ellington is third in league rushing. And last year's freshman star Sammy Watkins is finally getting untracked after a slow first half of the season.
"It's definitely a huge game," North Carolina State cornerback Dontae Johnson said. "We're just ready for the challenge."
The Wolfpack could also be finding their stride. They became bowl eligible last week with a 37-6 victory over Wake Forest. Earlier this year, North Carolina State knocked No. 10 Florida State from the national championship chase with a 17-16 victory. That win was the latest in amazing stretch where the team has won seven of its last 11 games against opponents.
Toppling Clemson would be the Wolfpack's second win over a top-15 team, something they'd only pulled off in a season twice before. The setting, though, could have plenty to do with the outcome.
The Tigers set a school record last week in a 45-10 victory over Maryland with their 12th straight victory at Death Valley. The Wolfpack have had their struggles at Memorial Stadium, losing seven of the past eight played there.
Clemson's players have a chance at a share of their third ACC Atlantic Division title in four seasons. The Tigers are tied for the division lead with Florida State and would need an unlikely Seminoles' loss at Maryland on Saturday — coupled with beating North Carolina State — to claim the Atlantic's spot in the league title game next month.
Defeating the Wolfpack would also mean Clemson's first 10-win regular season since 1981 when it won the national championship at 12-0.
"To be able to be a division champion three out of four years is a big step," Swinney said. "To be able to have back-to-back 10-win seasons in another big step. That's something we have talked a lot about."
The Wolfpack, as they have the past two years, will rely on the arm of quarterback Mike Glennon. The senior threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the upset of Clemson and is just a three yards behind Boyd for the ACC lead in passing yards.
The Tigers defense has picked things up the past month. Clemson's defenders were giving up 27 points a game the first six weeks and just 15 a game the last four. Glennon, though, could be the most talented and capable quarterback the Tigers have faced all season, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
"They've definitely earned our respect," Venables said. "And we're going to have to play better than we have all year."