In some respect, it defined Clemson’s season — this one and the last — virtually casting a shadow on an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship, then lingering like a bad cough.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney instructed the team to look forward rather than over its shoulder.
“You get in your car to drive, and there’s a big windshield,” Swinney said. “It’s much more important what’s in front of you than that little mirror that shows what is behind you.”
Losing typically bruises. A 70-33 thrashing by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl a year ago drew blood. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables became an unwitting reminder of the carnage.
“It was hard for a couple of days,” Swinney said.
Within days of the worst defeat in school history, Swinney fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and locked on Venables at Oklahoma.
“Last year’s over,” Swinney said as the 2013 season approached, “we have moved on. Hopefully those guys have grown from that experience.”
Clemson seemed to recover nicely, winning 10 games for the second successive season and hitting No. 14 to remain in the BCS conversation until the final week. Once the bowl roles were cast, the relative significance of a Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance compared to the Orange Bowl continued to raise questions.
“Completely exhausted, totally erased,” said Tajh Boyd. In two seasons as the starting quarterback, Boyd has been one of the catalysts in Swinney’s effort to return the program to the stature of those teams in the 80s that won five ACC championships and took down Nebraska, Stanford, Penn State and Oklahoma in bowl games.
“I personally think there were a lot of lessons learned,” Boyd said of the Orange Bowl experience. “I think it was a really good lesson for us as a whole program.
“I think from every position we learned something from last season, kind of the way the bowl season was prepared. We didn’t come with our best foot forward during last season’s bowl game. I don’t think we were into it as much. It was just kind of exhausted, and I think it’s totally different this year.”
No. 8 LSU provides another opportunity to put an exclamation point on this season. Losses to No. 10 South Carolina and No. 12 Florida State were of the bruising variety. Ball State had the most wins (nine) of any team Clemson defeated.
“We had a really good season. We lost to two top teams in the fourth quarter, and for us it’s about finishing games out,” Boyd said. “We get another opportunity, and it’s going to be a challenge for us.
“I think that we’ve become a consistent program of late — 10-plus wins the last two seasons — but now it’s time to take that next step. We’ve broken down a lot of barriers, but now it’s time to evolve a little bit more.”
An eternal optimist, Swinney refuses to recognize the past unless it serves his purpose.
“I think that we are on the verge of great things,” he said. “I felt that last year.
“You play a little better in a couple of spots and anything can happen.”