Clemson-Duke Preview

The Associated Press

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) -- - Clemson coach Dabo Swinney thinks the 10th-ranked Tigers have grown since their late-season collapse of last fall and have the experience to avoid a similar slide this season.

"Consistency is something this program has lacked,'' Swinney said. "That's the next thing we've got to do.''

The quest starts Saturday night when the Tigers visit a Duke team that hasn't defeated a ranked opponent in nearly 20 years.

Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) appeared ready to break through a year ago when it stood 8-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country. The Tigers were in the thick of BCS title talk because of a record-setting offense that looked unstoppable.

Then things fell apart.

Clemson lost three of its final four games in the regular season. While the team rebounded to win the ACC crown, Clemson was demolished in prime time in an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

Clemson's already handled several obstacles it hasn't in the past since its lone loss, a 49-37 defeat at then-No. 4 Florida State on Sept. 22, to get itself back in the top 10. Swinney said the players have learned from last year's problems and look forward to continuing their strong play.

"I just think the experience they've had is going to pay off for them,'' Swinney said. "That's usually the case.''

Tigers center Dalton Freeman said Clemson went nine games without a break last year and bumps and bruises began to take a toll. There were also several underclassmen at key positions, he said, like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins whose production tailed off and mistakes increased as the season wore on.

"They hadn't been through it before and I don't know if they were mentally ready'' for the stretch run, Freeman said.

Freeman says those players haven't forgotten what they went through and are focused on building on their four-game win streak.

For Boyd, this is a chance to prove he won't have a drop off in production the way he did last fall. Boyd had passed for 24 touchdowns and three interceptions in Clemson's perfect start. He had four touchdowns and seven interceptions in the final four regular-season games.

Boyd said he's a much more mature player this season and doesn't spend much time thinking about what went wrong for him last fall.

"It's a growth in the leadership role and having these guys look up to me in any situation whether we're down or up,'' he said. "So my job is to stay calm, stay poised and let the game come to me.''

Boyd's done that this season. He leads the league with more than 326 yards of total offense per game. He also tops the ACC with 20 TD passes against six interceptions.

Boyd threw for a school-record 428 yards in last Thursday's 42-13 victory over Wake Forest. He tied his own school record with five touchdown passes to five receivers - a fact Boyd's especially proud of.

"I think that's when we're at our best,'' he says, "when everyone touches the ball.''

Clemson got a major boost against Wake Forest from Watkins, an All-American who had struggled to match his freshman production as a sophomore. Watkins had eight catches for a school-record 202 yards and his first receiving touchdown of the year.

Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris believes Watkins is rounding into form at exactly the right time to keep the Tigers rolling.

Clemson, second in the ACC with 41.0 points per game, could be poised for a big effort against Duke (6-3, 3-2), which has allowed an average of 39.7 points in losing two of three.

In a 48-7 loss to the Seminoles last Saturday, the Blue Devils were outgained 560-232. Quarterback Sean Renfree was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with an unspecified head injury, and his status for this week is uncertain.

Despite its third lopsided loss of the season, Duke is one-half game back of Miami for first place in the Coastal Division.

"We have to move on,'' wide receiver Desmond Scott said. "We're going to show the young fellows how you bounce back from a loss like that."

That could be difficult considering the Blue Devils have lost 46 straight against ranked teams since beating No. 13 Virginia 28-25 in 1994. The Tigers have outscored Duke by an average of 30.0 points in winning the last three matchups, the most recent in 2008.

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