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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — As he flew back from Arizona last January, his players’ disappointment still fresh in his mind, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney began crafting the message he hoped would lead the Tigers past their national championship loss to Alabama and back for another run at the title.

Swinney knew starting 14-0 could not be recaptured. This group would face challenges that youthful, carefree bunch never did — and the message he’d need to build them back up had to be different.

“The focus,” said psychologist Milt Lowder, who speaks to Swinney, his assistants and Clemson players each week, “was that our dreams had to be greater than our memories.”

So far, so good. The No. 3 Tigers (12-1; No. 2 College Football Playoff) look to carry those dreams into their semifinal game against No. 2 Ohio State (11-1; No. 3 CFP) in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night.

Swinney saw a raw, emotional scene in the losing locker room as the Tigers hung with the Crimson Tide most of the way in a 45-40 defeat . The players’ drive to get back was great, Swinney knew, but not something that could sustain them through 12 grueling, grinding months where any number of distractions and events (injuries, off-field problems, NFL futures) could have waylaid the season.

“It’s just like every year, we had to start over,” Swinney said. “If we worried about that Alabama loss all year, we couldn’t have made it back.”

The tangible changes, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, said, were subtle. In the past, the players walking up the stairs from the locker room would see each of Clemson’s regular-season opponents with the date of the game. This season, those were replaced by the team’s logo, Tiger Paw.

“The message to the guys was, ‘Hey, not all programs are in position where if they truly worry about themselves and go out and execute and don’t beat themselves and they’re going to win, and we’re one of those programs that are in that situation,” Scott said.

Swinney relied on his upperclass leadership, particularly on offense, to keep the team on track during the offseason. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver Artavis Scott and center Jay Guillermo are rock-solid leaders, Swinney said, who have not let individual futures affect the team. Both Watson and Scott told Swinney in the summer they planned to head to the NFL after their junior seasons, and both took part in senior day ceremonies and a final on-field farewell to fans toward the end of a 56-7 blowout of rival South Carolina last month.

“It was not always easy to stay focused,” Watson said. “But we knew what we wanted out of this season.”

Lowder, the psychologist, said he and Swinney discussed back last winter the weight of expectations that were not present in 2015. Few saw the Tigers jumping to the top of game last season and the talk last spring was of a super offense, led by the incomparable Watson, who accounted for 478 yards and four TDs against Alabama.

When things bogged down early — Clemson opened with two six-point wins over Auburn and Troy — Watson felt the outside closing in.

He apologized to fans and the team after the 30-24 Troy win, saying he had not played with the joy of 2015. Swinney told his star to relax and concentrate on winning each day.

“This team had to ignore the outside noise,” Lowder said.

They had to do it again last month after Pitt’s stunning 43-42 home victory, the Tigers’ first home defeat since 2013. Suddenly, the clear path back to the playoff was filled with question marks. Watson threw for an Atlantic Coast Conference record 580 yards, but had three interceptions — two in the red zone — that were critical in the Panthers’ win.

Swinney quelled his team’s questions, stressing if they won out the rest of the way they would certainly make the playoff. “A little cough syrup is good for everybody from time to time,” he told players and fans.

Clemson closed out the season strongly with dominant wins over Wake Forest and South Carolina and an ACC championship victory over Virginia Tech to make a second straight playoff.

With the goal of a playoff berth achieved, does Clemson’s mindset return to the free-and-easy play of last year? Lowder doesn’t think so. It’s a team that has forged a stronger identity because of what they have gone through this season.

“They’ve been a resilient team,” he said.

The message this week is a simple one, Lowder says — give just one percent more, something everyone at Clemson thinks can happen.

“It’s one thing to be walking out of there and saying, ‘We want a chance at a rematch,'” Scott said of last January’s somber locker room. “It’s another to be four quarters away from that.”


Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins from Clemson, South Carolina, contributed to this report.


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