ATLANTA -- One play made all the difference, Clemson linebacker Cortney Vincent said.
Vincent was talking about Auburn's 12-yard pass on third-and-13 in overtime, a key to its 23-20 victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night. But Vincent could've easily been rehashing Clemson's entire season of almosts.
What if the 15th-ranked Tigers hadn't give up Matt Ryan's amazing 43-yard TD throw to Rich Gunnell in the final minutes of Boston College's 20-17 comeback at Death Valley in November?
Or if Aaron Kelly had held on to Cullen Harper's nicely thrown ball near the goal line on Clemson's final possession?
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Or if the Tigers special teams had made one play in a loss to Virginia Tech instead of allowing the Hokies touchdowns on a punt return and a kickoff return?
Or if kicker Mark Buchholz hadn't missed four times in an unlikely loss to a Georgia Tech team two months away from firing its coach?
Finishing off any of those games might have brought the Tigers even bigger things than their 9-4 record -- the team's best mark since 2003.
Vincent shook his head remembering the 12-yard completion to Rodgeriqus Smith and what followed Monday night -- Brandon Cox sneaked for a first down on fourth-and-1, and three snaps later, Kodi Burns finished off Auburn's bowl victory with a 7-yard TD run.
"I'll probably see that again when I go to sleep tonight," Vincent said after the game.
While Vincent regretted Smith's catch, he didn't regret how far the Tigers came this season.
"We played hard," he said. "That's what we can build on."
Tiger fans had high expectations that 2007 was the season coach Tommy Bowden's team would reach its championship potential.
The Tigers opened 4-0, then lost to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech to bring out the grumblers that perhaps Bowden's ninth season should be his last.
Instead -- as he's done several times throughout his tenure -- Bowden rallied Clemson to five victories in his final six games to reach the high-profile Chick-fil-A Bowl.
While the Tigers missed out on the Atlantic Coast Conference title game because of the Boston College loss, Bowden during December pointed toward a 10th victory -- something the program hadn't achieved since 1990 -- and what it would mean toward next year.
Now, Bowden and his players can point to the team's effort and the potential that exists for 2008.
"I hope the Clemson fans understand our guys gave it everything they had," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "I'm very proud."
That's a vastly different impression left after 2006's bowl game. Last season, the Tigers finished a late collapse with a sluggish performance in falling to Kentucky 28-20 at the Music City Bowl.
"I thought everything went OK," said James Davis, who had 72 yards to finish off his second straight 1,000 yard season. "We went overtime with these guys and we fought hard to the last play. That's something you want to see out of your teammates."
Bowden and Clemson fans are hopeful they will see Davis again next year. The junior star says he's leaning on a return to Clemson instead of the NFL, but wants to discuss with his family before making a final decision.
Should Davis come back, the Tigers would likely be ACC favorites. Without him, Clemson would lose the "Thunder" punch of its "Thunder and Lightning" backfield. C.J. Spiller, a junior next season, showed his electrifying skill with an 83-yard TD run against Auburn, the Tigers longest scoring play ever in postseason.
The coaching staff appears stable after Bowden agreed with the university on a deal that ties him to Clemson through 2014. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence interviewed for the same job at Tennessee, but was not offered the job.
Still, those are issues for later on. "It's tough going into an offseason with a loss," receiver Tyler Grisham said.
Clemson will have close to 20 players who started the Chick-fil-A Bowl back for 2008. That includes reserve linebackers Scotty Cooper and Kavell Conner, who filled in for suspended starters Nick Watkins and Tramaine Billie, both seniors.
Bowden already began talking to his team about next year amid the postgame disappointment.
"We had a great season. You can't take that away from us," quarterback Cullen Harper said. "We'd have like to finish on a win. But we still have a bunch of people coming back. We still have a chance to be really special."