Maturity level has changed

Maturity wasn't a cornerstone of the Clemson football program for the longest time.

If you're old enough, you remember the issues during the Ken Hatfield era, specifically the debacle that came before and during the 1991 Citrus Bowl.

Then there were some off-the-field issues and plenty of losses during Tommy West's tenure. The lack of maturity really showed itself on the field when Tommy Bowden took over. The program had several chances to take the next step but just couldn't get out of its own way. Off the field? The Tigers were fine. But on the field, they couldn't take the next step and have a consistently strong program.

Big wins that looked like they were going to help the program turn the corner were followed by mind-numbing losses, and the Tigers never reached their potential.

All of that has changed the past few years with Dabo Swinney as the head coach, and that new-found maturity is going to be pivotal the next few weeks.

Yes, most of the national focus on this team is on the showdown with Florida State on Oct. 19, but there are four games – a week from Thursday at N.C. State, followed by Wake Forest, at Syracuse and Boston College – before the Tigers can start to think about the Seminoles.

And those four games give Swinney's team more chances to show it has changed as a program. But like Swinney said after the Tigers' win over Georgia to open the season, it's time to change that story line. The whole "pulling at Clemson" idea is old. It doesn't apply to this program any more.

Take a look at last year for proof. Clemson did lose two games, but those two losses were nothing to be ashamed of: Florida State and South Carolina both finished highly ranked, and both games were right there to be had in the second half.

There were no blowout losses or mental lapses that can be expected from a college football program. There was just consistent, solid play. That maturity has carried over into this season and helps this program continue to grow.

Sure, there are going to be some off-field problems, and there have been a couple the past two seasons (Sammy Watkins' arrest and Mike Bellamy's many problems come to mind), but there aren't the endless arrests and suspensions that some coaches have to deal with. That says a lot about Swinney, his staff and the players they are recruiting.

The players' maturity is seen – even with just small things like how Tajh Boyd handled being called out by a rival. Boyd took the high road and showed a lot of class after South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said Boyd had played scared against the Gamecocks in recent seasons.

Boyd could have shot back – and has said he was close to doing so – but he didn't, and that was just another small example of how this program has grown.

Next up on the schedule is N.C. State, and the Tigers' most recent trip to Carter-Finley Stadium was the epitome of "pulling a Clemson." A week after clinching the Atlantic Division title in 2011, Clemson had one of its worst games in Swinney's tenure with a 37-13 loss to N.C. State. That was part of a 2-4 finish after Clemson had started the season eight straight wins, although one of those two wins came in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech.

But that was a young team and a different program than what Swinney has built now. The Tigers showed that last year, even if some people haven't caught on, and they will have more chances to prove that the next month.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at Top Stories