Outside of possibly LSU, no program was forced to live with a dismal conclusion to the 2011 season more than Clemson. The Tigers were beaten 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, and reminded of that fact daily in the eight months between January and the opener against Auburn.
With that result fresh in their minds, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney reminded his team that, win or lose, they would again have to live with the conclusion for the next eight months ahead.
Clemson appeared headed down a familiar path when Sammy Watkins was injured and fumble on the second play from scrimmage, and LSU's Michael Ford raced to the end zone two plays after that. But Swinney's team battled for 60 minutes and outscored LSU 12-0 in the fourth quarter, capped by Chandler Cantzaro's 37-yard field goal as time expired.
“You can’t win 12 until you win 11,” Swinney told the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier. “You can’t win a national championship until you learn how to win games like this. … They fought every fricking play. They played with a lot of love and toughness. (LSU) is a national championship team.
“This was a landmark win.”
After taking over the Clemson program at the midpoint of the 2008 season, Swinney has lifted the Tigers steadily up the ladder. There was Clemson's ACC title game appearance in 2009. Then there was the program's first ACC title in 20 years in 2011.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl win figures to wrap up Clemson's first top 10 finish since 1990 and clinched the program's first 11-win season since 1981.
So, yes, Swinney and co. are breaking down plenty of important, long-held barriers, and a younger, equally important one: a pleasant landing to the off-season.