CLEMSON -- Clemson found itself on the same playing surface Saturday as last December, but in a polar opposite circumstance.
On the last day of 2010, Clemson players walked off the field at Bank of America Stadium with heads hanging. The Tigers had lost to South Florida before mostly empty teal seats in the Meinke Car Care Bowl, securing the program's first losing season since 1998. The team's confidence was in tatters; quarterback Kyle Parker's ribs were fractured. Afterward, Billy Napier offered his final words as offensive coordinator while Dabo Swinney offered words of resolve.
On Saturday night, Clemson partied on the same field in Charlotte. From the stands, oranges rained down and orange confetti was shot into the air around the stage where Swinney, embattled a year earlier, accepted the program's first ACC championship trophy since 1991, a title streak drought older than the 42 freshmen on scholarship.
Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen was part of both experiences and noted the latter offers perspective on how far No. 14 Clemson (10-3) has come in a year: a four-game improvement, through 13 games. Clemson can make it a five-win improvement with a win over No. 23 West Virginia in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4 in Miami.
"To go 6-7 and experience everything we did last year, to turn around and come back and win the conference when no one picked us … unbelievable, unbelievable," Allen said.
"For me (the South Florida loss) was one of the lowest of lows. At that point in the season, I had touched the ball the last six games only twice -- twice -- after having 30-some catches the first six games. My mind was really out of it that game. It was one of the lowest points of my career."
Clemson linebacker Corico Hawkins said the win against Virginia Tech on Saturday washed away most ill will created by the team's November slump, which was capped by a third straight loss to South Carolina.
"(On campus Monday) it was a lot of congratulations, a lot of smiles," Hawkins said. "We had to get some of those smiles back because of the fact everybody was mad at us for losing to South Carolina last week. I guess it put everything in a better perspective around campus."
Hawkins remembers the postgame locker room of nearly 12 months ago in Charlotte.
"Coach Swinney told us after the (South Florida) game 'I will do whatever it takes for us not to have a season like this again.' We believed in him," Hawkins said. "We had to hold up our end of the deal. ... It's a lot that goes into it: a lot of hard work, a lot of preparation, soul searching, and a lot of different things. Just going back to work, focus on leadership and giving everything, and we did that."
Allen undecided; Freeman an award finalist
Allen said he has a "difficult" decision to make on whether to forego his senior year and enter the NFL draft. Allen is projected as a top 50 selection. He said he will soon submit paperwork to the NFL to officially gauge his draft stock … Clemson's Dalton Freeman was named as one of six finalists for the Rimington Award on Monday, given to the nation's best center.