Reason for optimism

The 2011 Clemson football season was a mixed bag for sure. There were some great moments, including plays and games Clemson fans will remember for years to come.

The victories over Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech might be the best three-game stretch in the program's history. The dynamic comeback against Maryland is something Clemson fans never will forget. Scoring 50-plus points in a win over North Carolina certainly was something Tigers fans enjoyed.

And the second win of the season over Virginia Tech for the ACC championship was, well, a long time coming.

There were also some head-scratching moments.

The losses at Georgia Tech and N.C. State were confusing, but the team looked like one that was primed for a letdown after its tremendous start to the season, and that played out in the disappointing performances in Atlanta and Raleigh. But really, playing so poorly at Maryland to fall that far behind early before pulling off such an exciting comeback might have been an indicator of things to come.

And then there were the ultimately frustrating losses at South Carolina and to West Virginia in Miami in the Orange Bowl. Those Tigers looked like the ones who went 6-7 the year before, and those losses, ACC title or not, dampened the excitement coming out of the season.

Three straight losses to the Gamecocks are tough for Clemson fans to take. But the number three isn't nearly as frustrating as another number that will hang over the team until it starts this season – 70. Allowing the Mountaineers to run wild for 70 points in the Orange Bowl was inexcusable, but it might have led to one of the positives of the offseason.

Brent Venables replacing Kevin Steele as the team's defensive coordinator is a definite upgrade, and the coaching staff had another strong recruiting cycle to improve the talent on the roster once again. Like the season, the offseason had some bad days as Mike Bellamy left the program (we'll see how much of a bad that will turn out to be) and Sammy Watkins' arrest marked the first mistake of his college career on a very public level.

All in all, however, the 2011 season and its offseason were big steps forward for the program, and Dabo Swinney's three seasons as the head coach have been positive in general. Anyone who says he's on the hot seat or should be fired simply because of another loss to South Carolina isn't paying attention.

Remember, this is a program that hadn't won an ACC Division title before he took over, and the last ACC title came in 1991. He has marked both of those off his to-do list while avoiding most of the off-field issues that come with most winning programs.

In short, the program is moving forward and progressing in the right direction.

Is it where Swinney, his staff and players and Clemson fans want it to be? No.

But the talent is improving with better recruiting, and the coaching staff seems to get better every year. Combine those factors with noticeable facility upgrades, and the wins are coming.

That starts anew this week as the Tigers look for more steps forward in what should be an exciting 2012 season for Clemson fans.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Top Stories