CHARLOTTE -- On the day before Clemson's 31-26 loss in the Meineke Car Care bowl, senior DeAndre McDaniel sat quietly in a pizza parlor in downtown Charlotte where media day was taking place and attempted to answer this question: When was the season lost? McDaniel traced the lackluster campaign back to overtime heartbreak at Auburn.
"We made their season," McDaniel said, "and they made ours."
Perhaps McDaniel had touched on the root of something. Unlike a year earlier, Clemson was not able to turn the page and move on from a heartbreaking defeat. The loss at Auburn began a three-game losing streak. And unlike the 2009 season when Clemson climbed from a 2-3 start to an Atlantic Division title, the Tigers had neither the leadership nor offensive capacity to climb from another early season deficit.
Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier spoke about leadership in explaining Clemson's fourth losing season since 1976.
"The one thing I think we need to take a good look in the mirror about is there's no doubt in my mind leadership amongst the players is really, really something you need to place a lot of emphasis on," Napier said. "In terms of contributors (lost) from the senior class on offense, that affected our leadership."
While there were no C.J. Spillers or Jacoby Fords to strike fear in defenses, there were no Spillers, Michael Palmers or Thomas Austins to motivate their peers.
Said Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said following the loss to South Florida: "We lost our confidence somewhere along the way."
Confidence was lost somewhere perhaps at Auburn or North Carolina. Of course there were other factors involved in accumulating more losses than wins.
Kyle Parker never seemed to be quite the same after taking a shot in the ribs at Auburn.
Had a few Chandler Catanzaro kicks gone the other way, Clemson could have several more wins.
Maybe the staff waited too long to insert receiver DeAndre Hopkins into the lineup.
Others point toward play-calling, with all seven losses occurring when the Tigers passed 30 or more times in a game this season.
While many fans want wholesale staff changes and Swinney did not rule out juggling his offensive staff, Napier defends his abilities by noting Clemson set a program points record last year, albeit aided by a lengthy 14-game schedule.
Napier also said there is reason for Clemson Nation to believe 2010 marks a sort of valley and the Tigers should improve quickly.
While the 2011 recruiting class is loaded with talent, Napier said he sees leadership ability in the underclassmen ranks, notably in the team's redshirt freshman quarterback. It was Tajh Boyd who showed the most life in Friday's loss, rallying the team to two late touchdowns, bettering their scoring output of the previous 58 minutes.
"I could see it in their eyes," Napier said. "They are ready to take on the leadership role.
"Football is what (Boyd) does. He walks around thinking about it on a daily basis. That is what it is going to take. That is what that position is about. I'm excited to see him work."
The Tigers can only hope a new year ushers new leaders, new playmakers and better results.