Clemson has returned to the national picture thanks to back-to-back 10-win seasons, a plucky coach, a headstrong quarterback and some pretty eye-popping records (both good and bad).
Indeed, the Tigers have accomplished feats over the last several seasons that have not been touched for 20-plus years. Yet there is one big goal out there, reached just once in the 117-year history of Clemson football.
Ask coach Dabo Swinney about where he has the Tigers headed, and inevitably he circles back to 1981, the lone national championship season in Clemson history. The one time the program has been ranked No. 1 in a season.
You know what Swinney wants? He wants that. And he is not going to tip-toe around the subject, either. Swinney is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy, so it should come as no surprise that he has embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program headed into the 2013 season.
And his players have embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program, too.
Swinney says, "We’ve done some great things. But our goal is to compete for the national championship. We want to be in the mix for the BCS bowl every year. We want to finish in the top 10 multiple times. That’s what we’re trying to do and I think the guys understand the margin for error is very small when you’re trying to be one of those great elite teams."
The small group of 10 seniors certainly understand, with quarterback Tajh Boyd leading the way. Boyd returned to Clemson for his final season because he understands what is at stake, not only for him, but for his team as well.
The Tigers have a shot at starting the season ranked in the preseason Top 10 for the first time since 2008, and only the third time since 1991. Boyd, of course, is a huge reason why, as he led a Clemson offense that set 101 different records during the course of 2012. His performance against LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl was one of his best, as he showed grit, determination and an unceasing will to win in leading the Tigers' jaw-dropping fourth-quarter comeback win.
That victory has only increased expectations headed into this season, not only from outsiders but from insiders, too. Boyd said what he saw during the first spring practice last week only encourages him to believe 2013 could be something special.
"We have a lot of capabilities as a program," Boyd said. "So I’m very excited, very encouraged about what the team is going to look like this year and we just have to keep building off it."
There is plenty to build off, as Clemson has posted 10 or more wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 1987-90 era. Mark consecutive top 25 finishes for the first time since that era as well, along with an ACC title in 2011 for the first time in 20 years. All wonderful steps, but Clemson has yet to take that final one.
This season provides the best opportunity to do so in years, as seven starters return on offense. This includes Boyd and Sammy Watkins, a more mature, grown-up receiver ready to take on a leadership role. The Tigers have some key players to replace on offense, including All-ACC running back Andre Ellington and All-ACC center Dalton Freeman, who started 49 games in his career.
But the biggest questions about this team surround the defense. Again. The Tigers were better last season under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, but they were not exactly at the top of the ACC class. Despite the improvements, Clemson ranked No. 7 in the ACC in total defense. And you can still hear the bad jokes about the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia.
Now the Tigers have to replace five starters, including the majority of their secondary. They also have to replace defensive end Malliciah Goodman. Only two of their top six tacklers return.
Two more potential roadblocks. First: the nonconference schedule is tough. Clemson has to open the regular season against Georgia -- also trying to get back to No. 1 -- and close it against in-state rival South Carolina. There are plenty who will say the Tigers should focus on being No. 1 in their own state before setting their sights on being No. 1 in the country.
Indeed, Clemson has not beaten South Carolina since 2008. Last season, in the game in Death Valley, the Tigers simply had no answer for Jadeveon Clowney. Nobody needs to tell Boyd that Mr. Clowney is back.
One more potential roadblock: the Tigers themselves. Clemson has had a history of falling flat in big games, or when expectations become supersized. How will this team handle the pressure as the season grows closer?
"They know how to win but more important they know how to prepare to win," Swinney said. "That’s the process they understand because of what they’ve been through for the last couple years. This is a group that wants to be great. Our job as coaches is to help them get there and correct them and discipline them and encourage them and teach them. That’s what we do, and it goes to your leadership on your team. There can’t be any satisfaction. I don’t think anybody here is satisfied with what we’ve accomplished."
Boyd echoes those sentiments, saying, "We want to be the No. 1 team."
How do the Tigers get there?
"We just have to continue to build, trying to focus on one game at a time," Boyd said. "Of course we believe we have the opportunity to put ourselves in that situation but it can’t happen if we don’t win the first game. We have to take it from the beginning to the end and continue to focus on every aspect of the game. We just have to continue to work."