CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's message to his players all year has been for them to focus on each other. He doesn't expect the 11th-ranked Tigers to change their approach now.
Swinney said Tuesday that Clemson (9-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) has played to a strict standard during its six-game winning streak. The Tigers hope to continue to play with the same discipline and attitude against North Carolina State (6-4, 3-3) Saturday at Death Valley.
"They've learned how to handle success better and they've learned what it takes to be consistent performers," Swinney said.
The coach said it would've been easy for the Tigers to lose direction at several points this season, particularly after their 49-37 loss at Florida State. That defeat likely will keep Clemson from playing for a second straight ACC title.
Instead of folding, Swinney said his players learned how to be consistent winners, which will pay off later.
Swinney's been part of past Clemson teams — he was Tigers receivers coach from 2003 until take over the program in 2008 — that would've dwelled on defeat and come up short in later weeks. Instead, Swinney said team leaders got players right back into their regular routines, forgetting about past defeats.
"They've bought into those things and that's what they've focused on," Swinney said.
Those results mean Clemson can share the ACC Atlantic Division crown by defeating the Wolfpack this weekend. The Tigers' loss to the Seminoles gives Florida State the spot in the league championship game should it defeat Maryland on Saturday. An upset by the Terps would send Clemson to its third title game in four seasons.
"We're not worried about any of that," Clemson center Dalton Freeman said.
There's plenty left for the Tigers to achieve even outside a league crown, Swinney said. They've never won seven ACC games in a season before and last won 10 regular-season games in 1981, their national championship season.
"These are steps forward we're taking," Swinney said.
The Tigers have shown steadiness on offense all season, leading the ACC in yards gained at more than 513 and second in league points scored at nearly 43 a game. The defense has tightened up the past month, rising to third in the ACC in points allowed at 22.4 per game.
Clemson had its best defensive showing of the year in last week's 45-10 victory over Maryland, holding the Terps to a season-low 180 yards of offense.
"We're playing pretty good football defensively," Swinney said. "As good as probably anybody in the top 20."
They'll be tested this week with the ACC's third-best passing team and Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon, who trails just Clemson's Tajh Boyd for most passing yards a game in the league.
It was Glennon and the Wolfpack who accelerated Clemson's late-season spiral with a stunning 37-13 loss last November that dropped the Tigers out of the top 10. It was part of Clemson's 1-3 finish after an 8-0 start — something the players vow not to repeat this season.
"As an offense, we felt like we were somewhat embarrassed by them last season," Boyd said. "It's one of those deals where we just want to get out there and have some fun."
North Carolina State qualified for a bowl game with last week's 37-6 victory over Wake Forest. The Wolfpack ran for 170 yards, their first game in more than a month surpassing the century mark on the ground.
"We had to run the ball to be a better football team," Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien said. "Anytime you can control the time of possession by running the ball, that is a good recipe to win the game."
Boyd and Tigers' high-flying attack has had lots of fun the first 10 games. They put up 718 yards in a 56-20 victory at Duke and followed that up with three Boyd TD passes in the opening half to take a 35-7 lead last week against Maryland.
It's a standard Swinney said he's worked hard to develop among his players since taking over midway through the 2008 season. Last year's group, which featured 42 freshman on the roster, learned how to win games but still needed to develop a toughness both to deal with adversity and to handle success. That's happened this season, Swinney said, and will serve as a foundation for the future.
"When you don't have that mentality, that's when you get your butt beat," Swinney said.