Clemson rose to rare heights (No. 5 ranking in the BCS standings on Oct. 23), spiraled to polar-opposite lows (losses at South Carolina and N.C. State) then regrouped in time to win its first ACC football title in 20 years. As No. 14 Clemson prepares for its Jan. 4 date with No. 22 West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, here's a look back at the five biggest moments of a wild 2011 season:
1. Sammy Watkins arrives
Clemson lacked offensive gamebreakers during a losing 2010 season, and perhaps the biggest reason for the 2011 turnaround was freshman Sammy Watkins. Watkins displayed not only speed but savvy in alerting coaches that Florida State cornerbacks were overplaying the slant route during their September game. Watkins suggested a slant-and-go on the sideline, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris called it, resulting in a 62-yard Watkins touchdown. Watkins finished with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in Tigers' 35-30 victory over Florida State.
Tight end Dwayne Allen on Watkins after the game: "Someone check his birth certificate."
Watkins became the first Clemson freshman to be named a first-team AP All-American.
2. Offensive awakening against Auburn
After poor offensive performances in victories over Troy and Wofford to start the season, Clemson had a breakout game against defending national champion Auburn. The Tigers rolled up 624 yards of offense en route to a 38-24 win, snapping Auburn's 17-game winning streak. It was the third-best yardage total in Clemson history.
When ESPN analyst Urban Meyer walked off the Clemson practice field the Thursday before the Auburn game, he told reporters: "Clemson fans are going to wake up one morning and realize they have a really good offense."
Meyer has since been named head coach at Ohio State and made a run at Morris, who this week signed a new six-year, $7.8 million deal to stay at Clemson, making him the highest-paid assistant in the country.
3. Catanzaro redeems himself
Kicker Chandler Catanzaro was the scapegoat of 2010. Clemson lost close games with Catanzaro missing crucial field goal attempts.
That changed this year when Catanzaro connected on nearly everything he kicked, including a 43-yard game-winning field goal against Wake to send Clemson to the ACC title game. Catanzaro had missed a critical kick just minutes earlier.
"(NFL kicker Morten Andersen) said that whenever he was iced, he just used it as a positive," Catanzaro said. "I just took some dry swings and just got ready to trust it, and that's what I did. I'm just so proud of myself right now."
Catanzaro has made 20 of 25 field goal attempts this season.
4. Boyd's big game
By midseason, defenses were becoming desperate in trying to solve the Clemson offense, so North Carolina tried to a new tactic -- all-out blitzing on quarterback Tajh Boyd. Boyd responded by leading the Tigers to a 35-point third quarter that included three touchdown passes. Boyd threw for 376 yards and five touchdown passes in the game as Clemson routed the Tar Heels, 59-38, to improve to 8-0 for just the third time since 1981.
Said Swinney: "I wouldn't trade anybody for my quarterback."
Boyd, a sophomore, set numerous program records, including passing yards (3,578) and passing scores (31).
5. Halting the Hokies -- twice
The Clemson defense didn't play up to its 2010 standard often in 2011, but it did shut down Virginia Tech twice. The defense lead Clemson to a critical road win Oct. 1 at Tech -- when the Hokies were held to a field goal at home for the first time since the 1990s -- and the defense again slowed Tech in the ACC title game.
"I don't even want to talk about the (negativity)," defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said of his defense. "We are going to the Orange Bowl for the first time in 30 years."