COLLEGE PARK -- Clemson football fans' expectations couldn't have been much loftier before last season. The team was ranked ninth nationally and had a senior quarterback, a top receiver and a flashy pair of running backs.
But the year didn't unfold as the team had planned. The Tigers were manhandled by Alabama in their opener, then blew an 11-point lead in a 20-17 loss to Maryland in Week 5 before 81,000 dazed fans at Death Valley. Coach Tommy Bowden was replaced by Dabo Swinney at midseason.
This season, Clemson is still loaded with offensive talent and a staunch defense. But Swinney and the Tigers, who face Maryland (1-3, 0-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) Saturday at Byrd Stadium, seem to be trying to temper their fans' expectations to allow the team to develop without undue pressures.
After Clemson (2-2, 1-1 ACC) lost, 14-10, to 15th-ranked Texas Christian last Saturday, Swinney emphasized the positive. He clearly wants to avoid the unrealistic highs - and particularly the lows - that characterized last season.
"This is a different football team, different Clemson and a new staff," Swinney said. "It is all about today. Our football team is getting better. That is what we see and what we know. If you look around college football, you see teams really high, really low getting blown out. This football team has come to play."
Clemson's offensive stars still get most of the attention. Running back C.J. Spiller and wide receiver Jacoby Ford were among the reasons Clemson was picked in the top 10 in preseason polls last season. Spiller, now a senior touted by the school for the Heisman Trophy, ranks third in the nation - behind Marshall's Darius Marshall and Maryland's Torrey Smith - in all-purpose yards with 214 per game. Ford, a senior who is also a sprinter on Clemson's track team, has 20 catches for 270 yards and two touchdowns.
But Clemson's most impressive statistics have been registered by the defense. The Tigers rank 10th in the nation in pass defense and 26th in total defense.
"They are experienced, fast, athletic and pretty impressive," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said of Clemson's defense. "Ricky Sapp - it seems like he's been there for years."
Sapp, a senior, is used by the Tigers as a defensive end and linebacker. He entered the season ranked in the top five among active ACC players in tackles for loss.
Swinney might preach ignoring the past - "The past is a bucket of ashes," he said - but he knows well that Maryland's upset of the Tigers last season still registers with Clemson players and fans. Swinney was the wide receivers coach at the time.
Clemson had been manhandled by Alabama in last season's opener and had won three in a row over less-than-stellar foes heading into the Maryland game. The Tigers took a 17-6 lead over the Terps before collapsing.
The big play came when Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak stuffed quarterback Cullen Harper on fourth-and-inches to protect a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead for the Terps. Maryland players said they were struck at how quiet the Clemson fans became when the Terps took control late in the contest.
Wujciak, a redshirt junior who had 17 tackles in last week's 34-13 loss to Rutgers, says the Clemson game is the most memorable of his career.
It was memorable for the Tigers, too.
"[The Terps] have our full attention after they beat us at Clemson last year," Swinney said.