NASHVILLE -- Thanks to two key salvage efforts, Clemson's 2009 campaign was one of "progress," according to coach Dabo Swinney.
After Clemson's signature win at Miami, Swinney said the season turned thanks to a change in strategy implemented after the loss at lowly Maryland, a new course which he dubbed Clemson's "surge."
By defeating Kentucky in Sunday's Music City Bowl, the Tigers (9-5) again swung momentum, avoiding an offseason featuring the bitter aftertaste of a three-game losing streak.
To Swinney, focusing the team for the bowl game was another show of resolve, and better allows Clemson to sell a message of progress.
"We became a team," Swinney said. "This is a team that was 2-3 that hung in there. We became a tougher team."
Swinney declared the season a success Sunday. He said only one other program led by a first-year staff, Rose Bowl-bound Oregon, has had more success.
Measuring the team against
Swinney's own preseason goals, Clemson reached 60 percent of its objectives: the program's first Atlantic Division title, Clemson's first bowl win in four seasons, and Clemson's opening win.
The Tigers failed in the other posted two goals: win the state championship and ACC title.
"Next year we have things in place, guys better understanding the system," Swinney said.
Senior Ricky Sapp said the season is made more impressive when considering the coaching turnover, which he said shouldn't be underplayed.
"The coaching change," Sapp said, "that's a hard deal."
Swinney lamented it could have been a great year had Thomas Austin not been called for offensive holding in Week 2 at Georgia Tech; had Clemson forced one defensive stop against the Yellow Jackets in the conference title game; had the Tigers executed on a few more plays against TCU.
"I would have said an outstanding (season) with a play here or there," Swinney said. "We could have 11 wins. That's a special year winning 11 or 12."
The salvage effort was made possible by a strong core of senior leaders.
"I told them I hope Clemson will never be the same," Swinney said. "They set a great standard for our freshmen and sophomores on how you handle adversity, how you battle."
C.J. Spiller said he and his fellow seniors have laid the foundation for greater Clemson success.
"They know what it takes to get there," Spiller said. "They've got all the ingredients to be elite."