Culture change tested again tonight

CLEMSON – From the moment he took over going-on five years ago, Dabo Swinney has spoken repeatedly about changing Clemson's culture.

Improve the accountability.

Improve togetherness.

Improve the overall belief that winning was expected, rather than just waiting for something bad to happen – which was too often the result of Tommy Bowden's decade-long tenure.

Why bring this up now, with Clemson ranked No.3 in the nation and headed to Raleigh for Thursday's 7:30 p.m., ESPN-televised matchup against N.C. State?

Simple. Seemingly every time you turned around this week, someone was asking a Clemson coach or player about the meaning of the trip. Would the Tigers be ready? With Clemson installed as a 13.5-point favorite, was this a "trap" game?

It's easy to understand the reason for the questions, given Clemson's dismal 37-13 defeat in its last trip to Carter-Finley Stadium in November 2011. That team was a week removed from clinching an ACC Atlantic Division title, and it played like it. The Tigers were uninspired, committed four turnovers and had what coaches and players have repeatedly called an "embarrassing" performance.

"We executed a plan to lose," Swinney said this week.

The questions were asked from the standpoint of "what did you learn?"

How they should have been approached was this: "Why it won't happen again."

The culture has changed. While it's fine for Clemson fans to be nervous about Thursday night, there's really no need to worry.

Swinney's Clemson program has shown me that it is ready for every game. One by one, they've debunked the demons that plagued it under Bowden: playing on Thursday night, playing down to opponents, playing poorly against top-tier SEC foes.

"One by one, they've debunked the demons that plagued it under Bowden: playing on Thursday night, playing down to opponents, playing poorly against top-tier SEC foes."

A year ago, the Tigers quieted the talk of poor Thursday night play with a 42-13 evisceration of Wake Forest.

They've won back-to-back games against top-10 SEC foes in LSU and Georgia, the first non-SEC program ever to accomplish that feat.

And consider this: the last time they lost to an unranked opponent was that ugly day in Raleigh. This week, Swinney admitted his team just wasn't ready for that challenge two years ago after losing an unbeaten season at Georgia Tech and rallying just to get past Wake Forest on Chandler Catanzaro's game-winning field goal.

"The world was over (after that Georgia Tech game)," he said. "We were No. 4, No. 5, and it was ‘The world has come to an end, oh my gosh, we've blown it.' I don't think we were very focused, very mentally tough.

"Guys have learned through that process that the season always starts tomorrow, that the next game is the biggest game of the year, period, not the one you've already played. This is the biggest game of the year. That mentality has crept into our team."

Those quotes are far from juicy – Swinney talks so much about a "nameless, faceless opponent" that it seems like Clemson is a touchdown favorite every week over "Opaque Paper" – sponsored by Dunder-Mifflin Paper Co., of course. And while his detractors paint him as a Michael Scott-like character, Swinney has a smart, effective approach.

Play on an even keel and don't worry about what people say about you. Just do your job. Recruit talented players and great coordinators and manage them to the best of your ability. Embrace the spotlight. It's fun.

"It comes with what we're doing as a program," senior quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "I don't think that if we were ranked 47th, this would be as big of a game. It's a credit to what we're doing as a program. We've made strides every year, and you have to handle it in stride. You've gotta love it. "I love seeking things out as well. You'll go out there as the hunted, and if you go out there and you eat, it makes it that much better."

National media loves to talk about "Clemsoning," and Swinney's impassioned rant following the season-opening victory over Georgia shows he and his team are tired of talking about it.

Since that ugly end to the 2011 season – capped by the Orange Bowl fiasco at West Virginia's hands – the roster has matured and the program has become more consistent.

In our microwave, want-it-yesterday world, culture change can be a difficult concept.

College football rosters - and the mindsets that populate them – are tough to revamp overnight. They take time and work to mold.

And while nothing is certain, I think Swinney is molding a durable, successful culture in Clemson. We should see the latest example of that displayed on ESPN Thursday night. Top Stories