CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - It didn't take long for Clemson center Thomas Austin to realize the team's trip to the Music City Bowl in 2006 wouldn't go the Tigers' way.
Clemson was lethargic, partly because disappointment was rampant following losses in three of the final four regular-season games, and the Tigers lost to Kentucky 28-20.
This postseason is much different. Optimism is abound with so many starters returning next season, and No. 15 Clemson (9-3) knows a victory over No. 22 Auburn (8-4) on Monday in the Chick-fil-A Bowl will go a long way toward next year.
Clemson looked ready to fold again this season, their 4-0 start wiped out with consecutive defeats to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. But they've fought back several times down the stretch.
``That what makes this team so unique is that we did lose a couple of early games but fought back and put ourselves in contention,'' Austin said.
Clemson reeled off four straight victories to set up a showdown for the Atlantic Coast Conference title game with the Boston College.
The Tigers showed their mettle against the Eagles, moving ahead in the final quarter and nearly rallying at the end in a 20-17 loss.
A week later, Clemson needed another comeback to squeak past rival South Carolina. Quarterback Cullen Harper connected on four passes with receiver Aaron Kelly - including back-to-back throws of 14 and 12 yards after facing third-and-18 - that led to Mark Buchholz's 35-yard game-winning field goal.
``To be on the winning track and to get an opportunity to play in a huge bowl game,'' Austin says, ``we're excited about that.''
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden spoke to his team about their chance to make history - no group of Tigers has reached 10 victories in 17 years.
Just as important, Bowden stressed, is what success on New Year's Eve can mean to his team, which is expected to have as many as 18 starters returning next fall.
``If you want a chance to jump on the radar and set a standard and try to maintain and exceed the standard, then I think winning is important,'' Bowden said. ``It's the last signature that this puts out to the public.''
Several standout juniors, like running back James Davis, defensive lineman Phillip Merling and safety Michael Hamlin, could have decisions about leaving early for the NFL draft.
Davis, just 8 yards shy of his second straight 1,000-yard season, said the success down the stretch has improved the team's attitude and desire to keep it going. ``That's obviously a big deal,'' he said.
Plus, the Tigers don't want to go through what they did after last season. Bowden has said several times that his team's eight victories a year ago gave him nothing but ``eight months of headaches.''
The bowl loss to Kentucky ``kind of overshadowed the whole offseason and kind of put us in a bad light,'' Kelly said.
Since the end of the season, Bowden's agreed to a new deal that will tie him to the Tigers through 2014, and should end the headaches.
Bowl workouts haven't gone without incident. Starting linebackers Tramaine Billie and Nick Watkins, and offensive lineman Christian Capote, are out because of academics. And linebacker Cortney Vincent's status is up in the air after his arrest.
Through it all, Harper thinks the players have kept their eyes on the game - something he didn't see a year ago.
``There's a lot out there for us to take,'' Harper said. ``We have a chance to finish this season off and be really special. ... There's a lot of good things that can happen for us next year and that's even more of an incentive for us to go out and play well.''
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