Leadership must prevent letdown

Ball State's most famous alumnus is best known for a funny (at least most nights) top-10 list on his show each week night on late night TV.

But even David Letterman would acknowledge there aren't 10 keys to Clemson's game with Ball State on Saturday. There is just one: focus.

Talent-wise, the Tigers should be able to handle the Cardinals with no problem, but there are games all across the nation every Saturday that aren't decided by talent. Favored teams can lose focus, overlook an opponent or look ahead to another game on their schedule and then not play their best.

When that happens, they can be in trouble for a closer-than-expected game or even a loss. That's what Clemson faces this week, and it needed to re-focus as soon as the big win over Auburn was completed Saturday night at the Georgia Dome. Yes, there should be time to celebrate and enjoy that kind of victory to start a season, but championship teams have to turn the page quickly on those kinds of games and be ready for the next contest, no matter who the opponent might be.

Teams that have championship aspirations don't get too high after a big win or too low after a tough loss. They understand the big picture and know it's a long season and every game is just as important as the previous one.

They play to a standard they set for themselves and not to the talent level of their opponents. It's about playing the game the right way and doing all the little things to bring about the desired result. When teams focus on those things – and not the end result – they typically get the result they want.

But that doesn't just occur on game day. That standard is set in practice, going out each and every day during the week and preparing the right way to get ready for game day on Saturday. That's where focus kicks in. If a team gets too full of itself after a big win or thinks it has a win in the bag before it even plays, it can be in trouble. But if it can go out to work every day and keep its focus on what it's doing that day and who it is playing that week, it can do the things it needs to do to win that game.

That's where the leadership of the team and the coaching staff has to come into play for Clemson this week.

In coming away with the program's biggest season-opening win in a few years, the Tigers have set the stage for what could be a big season. But they have to let the fans think about those dreams and worry just about who is up next on the schedule. They can't overlook Ball State on Saturday or even Furman next week and start thinking about their showdown with Florida State on Sept. 22, although it would be human nature to do that.

That would be dangerous, for sure. Yes, Clemson could beat Ball State and Furman without giving its best effort, but it can't be a championship team by doing that. The Tigers can't put too much emotion and focus into the game with Florida State and reach their goals. Teams that do that get too high for that one game and then have letdowns later.

But this team seems to have good leadership and appears to be focused on doing things the right way. That came through in the win over Auburn. Things were not perfect and certainly didn't go smoothly in the win. There were mistakes with penalties, dropped passes and missed opportunities – all the things coaches expect to happen, but dread, in a first game. Yet Clemson was able to overcome all those problems to pull out the big victory.

Tajh Boyd has been terrific with his leadership on this team, and his maturity and poise Saturday were impressive. He ignored several dropped passes and quickly moved past an interception he threw early in the fourth quarter to lead the offense to the go-ahead score on the ensuing drive. The leadership on the defense was easy to see, too, as that unit overcame its own struggles through the first three quarters to make adjustments, make the big plays that were needed and clamp down on Auburn in the fourth quarter to help seal the win.

The team will need to carry over those things into Saturday's game -- a home opener against an overmatched opponent that should be an easy win. For that to happen, the focus had to turn to Ball State as soon as last week's game was over. And it has to remain directly on the Cardinals this week as Clemson tries to move forward and be the kind of team it wants to be.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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