One day after accepting an invitation to play South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on New Year's Eve, the Clemson Tigers began making themselves at home here Monday.
Junior end Da'Quan Bowers was recognized as the nation's top collegiate defensive player, receiving the Bronko Nagurski Award at a dinner that featured five nominees. Last Friday night, Bowers was honored as the ACC's defensive player of the year.
The evening also included a keynote address by Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, who was booked as the featured speaker nearly a year ago, long before either Bowers or the Tigers knew they were headed to town.
Bowers leads the nation with 151/2 quarterback sacks, needing just one more to set the school record held by Keith Adams. Bowers also has 25 tackles for loss, second-most in the country.
A 6-foot- 4, 275-pounder from Bamberg, S.C., Bowers is expected to be a first-round NFL draft choice if he decides to forego his senior season.
He said he has not made a decision about whether he will enter the draft in the spring. Swinney said he does not consider it a foregone conclusion that Bowers will bypass his senior season, based on one conversation they've had on the subject.
"In the past, he's been a good player but not great. This year he decided to take it to another level," Swinney said.
"He's been driven. He lost his father (who died unexpectedly in early August) and it fueled him. He's grown up."
Bowers lost 15 pounds from his sophomore playing weight and spent the season wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. He had nine tackles, including four for loss, in an overtime loss at Auburn, 31/2 tackles for loss against Miami and three sacks against Maryland.
"I credit all my success to my teammates," Bowers said. "If it wasn't for the two interior linemen (Brandon Thompson and Jarvis Jenkins) beside me, I wouldn't have made half the plays I made."
Bowers added his name to a list of Nagurski winners that includes Charles Woodson, Warren Sapp, Champ Bailey and last year's winner Ndamukong Suh.
The award is presented by the Charlotte Touchdown Club and the Football Writers Association of America.
The finalists this year included Nick Fairley of Auburn, Justin Houston of Georgia, Patrick Peterson of Louisiana State and Luke Kuechly of Boston College.
Bowers already has his eyes on returning to Charlotte with his teammates for their Dec. 31 meeting with South Florida. It will be Clemson's first appearance in the Charlotte bowl, but not the Tigers' first game in Bank of America Stadium. They played Temple in a 2006 regular-season game in the stadium.
The Tigers (6-6) will be attempting to win consecutive bowls for the first time in 20 years. They closed the regular season with three losses in five games, including a 29-7 home-field loss to South Carolina on Nov. 27.
"This type of game starts next season for us," Bowers said.
Swinney said it's a chance to put a positive finish on a season that ran hot and cold. The Tigers lost to No. 2 Auburn in overtime and were beaten by a 55-yard Florida State field goal with two seconds remaining.
Though their defense ranks ninth in points allowed (17.75 per game), the Tigers struggled offensively. They also made 12 of 21 field goal attempts.
"It's been frustrating, bittersweet, encouraging, all of those things," Swinney said. "The good news is we had a lot of guys playing their tails off, so I'm encouraged that we're on the right track."