CLEMSON — James Davis couldn't believe his eyes or ears in the moments that followed Clemson's Sept. 27 loss to Maryland.

It was no doubt devastating to watch the Terrapins overcome an 11-point halftime deficit to win 20-17 in Death Valley, but Davis was disturbed by the hopelessness he witnessed in the locker room.

"I couldn't believe a lot of guys were putting their heads down," said Davis, Clemson's senior tailback. "You could just tell a lot of guys were thinking the season was over with."

Davis says things have changed, that his teammates are now refreshed and reinvigorated after last week's open date. But he knows the Maryland locker room scene could seem like a carnival by comparison if the Tigers don't manage to win tonight at No. 21 Wake Forest.

As much as coach Tommy Bowden talks about staying the course and playing the whole season, this team needs a win tonight almost as much for its confidence as for the conference standings. After a 34-10 smashing against Alabama in the opener and the second-half ugliness that unfolded against the Terrapins, the Tigers' psyche might not be able to withstand another gut punch.

"I can't imagine" what a loss would entail, Davis said. "I'm not even going to imagine. I'm dreaming right now, hoping that we can get this game."

As disappointing as the Tigers' 3-2 start (1-1 ACC) has been, they find their goals still within reach. The Demon Deacons (3-1, 1-0) are the only Atlantic Division team without a conference loss, and Clemson would find itself in good position with a victory in Winston-Salem, N.C.

A defeat, though, would put the Tigers in a major hole with next week's visit from Georgia Tech coming. The Tigers follow that game with an open date before embarking on back-to-back trips to Boston College and Florida State.

Bowden, still seeking an ACC title in his 10th year with the Tigers, has faced considerable scrutiny thus far this season. Fans couldn't understand why his team wasn't emotionally ready for Alabama. They couldn't comprehend how an offense that moved so effectively in the first half against Maryland ran aground after halftime.

Bowden might well be coaching for his job just 10 months after signing a contract extension, but he's giving little indication that the pressure is getting to him.

"I hope they feel a sense of urgency," he said of his players. "But you can't create an environment of being tense or being uptight going into a game from a players' standpoint. ... You walk a fine line."

Bowden said he spoke to his players earlier this week about being resilient.

"It's not so much that you never get knocked down. It's the team that keeps getting up and getting up and getting up. You relate it to life and family and sicknesses and all that stuff. You relate it to what they have to face in the real world. This is no different."

Davis said he and fellow senior Cullen Harper addressed the team after the Maryland defeat in an effort to keep everyone together. Junior center Thomas Austin took it a step further three days later, asking Bowden for permission to lead a players-only meeting.

Davis and Austin said they've since seen results from their teammates in the form of hard work and a determination to correct the mistakes that derailed them against Maryland.

All that sounds good, but both Davis and Austin know the perceived progress won't mean anything if they don't carry it over into tonight's game.

"The only way to get that bitter taste out of your mouth is to get a win, and to right the ship in a sense," Austin said. "We're definitely kind of tired of hearing what's being said. We want to go out and prove ourselves again."

Reach Larry Williams at lwilliams@postandcourier.com and check out the Clemson blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/tiger_tracks.