COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — There's a long season ahead for No. 17 Clemson and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney says he's got to make sure his team's first loss of the year doesn't damage the next two months as well.
"We're not a great team in September, but we could be in November," Swinney said Sunday.
Swinney understands there's plenty of work ahead to make that happen after No. 4 Florida State exposed several flaws in a 49-37 Clemson defeat Saturday night. The Seminoles took control in the second half with several big special teams' plays and gashing a defense that has struggled all year at stopping the run. Clemson's secondary was lacking, too, giving up a number of big plays in the Seminoles' rally.
Swinney singled out the cornerback play. Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson were the starters against Florida State.
"I think there are some guys we really need to challenge this week," Swinney said, who didn't want to name names. "We have some guys who have to play better who have played better."
Swinney did not rule out lineup changes before the Tigers (3-1, 0-1 ACC) head to Boston College (1-2, 0-1) on Saturday. More importantly, though, Swinney wants the Tigers to remember there's plenty to play for, even with the loss to their ACC Atlantic Division rival.
A season ago after Clemson defeated the Seminoles at Death Valley, Florida State followed that with a loss at Wake Forest a week later. That defeat put the Seminoles in a bigger divisional hole and gave Clemson a cushion to reach the ACC title game despite losing two of its final three conference games.
"We have to control what we can control," Swinney said. "There's no telling what's going to be going on in November. This is college football."
Clemson has also had its share of seasonal momentum shifts through the years. In 2011, the Tigers followed an 8-0 start with a 1-3 finish. Still, they won their first ACC championship in 20 years.
The Tigers started out 2009, star runner C.J. Spiller's senior season, a shocking 2-3, then won six straight games to win the Atlantic Division and reach the ACC title game.
Swinney thought the experience of last year's up-down-up-down showing — Clemson won the ACC title, then gave up a record number of points in 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl — could help the Tigers keep the Florida State game in perspective.
"It helps anytime you have the experience in your background of success and failure," Swinney said. "Last night was a big disappointment for them. They had it right there in their fingertips. But we have good, solid leadership on this team and I think they'll flush it out of their systems and refocus on the next game."
For much of the last game, Clemson looked it had Florida State's number. Quarterback Tajh Boyd kept the team moving in the opening half and when receiver Sammy Watkins threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Andre Ellington, the Tigers led 28-14. That's when the bottom dropped out for the Tigers.
Florida State's offense used a 35-3 run to erase the deficit while the Seminole defenders tightened up on Clemson's playmakers.
"In the first half they didn't really slow us down, but we kind of sputtered a little bit in the third quarter and that led to bad things in the fourth quarter," Clemson center Dalton Freeman said. "There were a lot of good things, but we've got to correct the mistakes."
The game featured one of the craziest Clemson coincidences in history — the third straight game at Florida State where a Tigers' long snapper recovered a fumble. Charles Roediger did it for Clemson against the Seminoles in 2008, Matt Skinner two years later and Phillip Fajgenbaum picked up the loose ball on Saturday night.
Swinney was pleased with Boyd's toughness until the end and how the offense struck for a final late touchdown after the Seminoles were well out in front. All those lessons will serve the team well the rest of the season and keep them on track, Swinney said, for a special season.
"We've played four games," Swinney said. "We've got a whole season in front of us. Hopefully, they'll respond. If they are the guys I think they are, they will."