CLEMSON, S.C. Clemson's football team admittedly did a poor job of handling the success that came with an 8-0 start and a national ranking that soared to No. 6 earlier this season.
Now the Tigers (9-3) have a different kind of problem: How they deal with the disappointment of a 1-3 finish to the regular season as they head into Saturday's ACC championship game against Virginia Tech at Bank of America Stadium with a berth in the Orange Bowl on the line.
"Most of us had never been in that situation before - we'd never been 8-0 before," said center Dalton Freeman on Tuesday. "So you try to tune everything out, but it's virtually impossible."
The Tigers were, at one point, the biggest surprise in the country. Clemson won its first eight games - including a 23-3 victory at Virginia Tech - and rose to sixth in the national polls.
There was talk of success beyond the ACC championship the team will play for Saturday. A return to the glory of 1981, when the Tigers won their only national title, wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
Then things unraveled. The Tigers' only victory in their final four games was a 31-28 come-from-behind triumph against Wake Forest. They weren't close in the three losses - 31-17 to Georgia Tech, 37-13 to N.C. State and 34-13 to South Carolina.
Tangible reasons abound for the downfall: Injuries to key players - notably to freshman receiver Sammy Watkins and offensive tackle Phillip Price. Too many penalties and turnovers.
But coach Dabo Swinney thinks it goes deeper.
"We've done a poor job of handling success," said Swinney. "It's just one of those things you have to experience. We're going to be 8-0, 9-0 - we'll be there again and hopefully these lessons will apply."
Swinney said the Tigers simply lost track of what made them successful through the first two months of the season.
"They weren't quite as focused, not quite as hungry, not as humble," he said. "They didn't prepare as well. Then you lose a game and people talk like this or that. It's the nature of the best. I wish it was an easier process to go through. And I don't think we did a good job of that."
Defensive end Kourtnei Brown learned his lesson.
"I can't speak for everybody, but it could be hard at times," said Brown, who played at Charlotte's Victory Christian. "You're winning and winning and you may want to take off a little, turn it down a notch. But in this game, the winners never let off the gas. They're always pushing forward."
Monday - two days after the indignity of losing to in-state rival South Carolina - Swinney called the team in for a 2 1/2-hour meeting.
"I wanted everybody to understand that we're all in here to be on the same page, coaches and players," said Swinney. "We had to create a little bit of accountability and encouragement in that room. You tell them you love them and move on. But you keep it in the family."
The late-season slide has added to a time-honored idea that Clemson - with its top recruits and excellent facilities - somehow always manage to underachieve.
Whatever the perception of the Tigers, Swinney accepts it and wants to change it.
"I know what reality is," he said. "I live in reality, not in fantasy land."