There are clear benchmarks along the Clemson journey from being just another team to annual championship contender.
How to identify those benchmarks? Pretty simple, really. The Dabo Swinney jubilation factor.
If he bear-hugs a reporter, the way he did Jeannine Edwards after a come-from-behind victory over LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Tigers probably had an important win. "We grew up tonight," Swinney told Edwards then. "I've been telling them they're at the doorway to greatness, but sooner or later you've got to step through it. You've got to take action!"
If he trash-talks rival South Carolina, the way he did after a redemptive victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl following the 2013 season, the Tigers probably had an important win. "It just means we're one step closer to our ultimate goal," Swinney said, "and that's to be the best in the country."
But the jubilation factor in the LSU victory (allowing Clemson to post its first 11-win season since 1981) and the Ohio State victory (putting to bed the West Virginia-Orange Bowl embarrassment) had nothing on 2015 Notre Dame.
Otherwise known as the Bring Your Own Guts, or BYOG, game.
Everything Swinney and the Tigers had done to that point set the stage for the 2015 season: Their ramped-up recruiting efforts led them to transformative quarterback Deshaun Watson, plus a slew of rising stars in Christian Wilkins, Mitch Hyatt and Austin Bryant.
Though they had made steps nationally, especially with big wins in bowl games, skepticism remained about whether they could break through. The Tigers had yet to put together a complete season, no matter how hard they tried.
The Oct. 3 Notre Dame game provided the perfect opportunity to showcase exactly what Swinney had been building toward since he became head coach in 2008. Especially with College GameDay in town and a national audience tuned in to see whether the Tigers were, indeed, for real.
"I won't forget that game," said Wilkins, who played as a true freshman. "We played in a tsunami, typhoon, hurricane. It was my first night game in the Valley. I got my first career sack in that game. The energy we had -- the Valley was rocking, and it was a lot of fun going against a prestigious program and a historic program like Notre Dame."
"I can always look back to that game," receiver Hunter Renfrow said. "I had my first big catch in that game. I'd never really made any plays on any big stage. I had catches against Wofford and App State, but that was my sense of belonging. If I could go out and make a play against Notre Dame, who is one of the best in college football and one of the most storied programs, then I could belong."
Notre Dame came in as the higher-ranked team, but Clemson jumped on the Irish early in the pouring rain and took a 21-3 lead just after halftime. Notre Dame rallied back, and lined up for a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game. But Carlos Watkins stopped DeShone Kizer with 7 seconds left in regulation, Clemson won 24-22 and a wild celebration ensued.
Before kickoff, Swinney told his players this would be a "bring your own guts" game. Then, he let the whole world in on his motivational speech during an ESPN postgame interview that eventually went viral.
"I told them, 'We give you scholarships, we give you stipends and meals and a place to live. We give you nice uniforms. I can't give you guts, and I can't give you heart.' And tonight, it was BYOG: Bring your own guts!" Swinney said.
The passionate speech was so true to Swinney, it served as an added glimpse into what makes him who he is, while blessing the college football world with another irresistible Swinney catchphrase (the "ROY bus" made its entrance just a few weeks ago).
The following Monday, Clemson players had a new T-shirt waiting for them in their locker, emblazoned with "BYOG."
"I think it's a gift from God to be able to connect with people in that way," Renfrow said of Swinney. "You can see his passion, and I think that's what people gravitate to, his passion out there. Because it wasn't just another game to him. It meant the world to him, and it showed in those postgame interviews."
That win, though, served more than just memorializing BYOG. It served as a catalyst for a young program ready to take the next step. Sure, Clemson had beaten teams such as Ohio State and LSU and Oklahoma on its rise. But players said there was something different about beating Notre Dame, because of its standing as a historic program, one that had a much more storied tradition than their own.
"That game was, 'Oh, we're here, we can do this. Clemson can make this run,'" said former offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain, a senior in 2015.
"It's hard to put into words what that game meant to us as a program, really," Renfrow said. "We'd never really taken that step before as a program. We'd lose one or two games, and we wouldn't be in the national conversation. I know that because I grew up a Clemson fan. We'd lose a game we weren't supposed to, and so to win that game early in the season, it meant a lot."
Clemson finished the 2015 regular season undefeated, made its first College Football Playoff appearance and lost a heartbreaker to Alabama in the national championship game. But that was only the beginning. Clemson won the national championship in 2016 and has now made four consecutive playoff appearances.
We could end up with Clemson-Alabama Part IV this season, but first the Tigers have to get past Notre Dame in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, in an especially meaningful game given the significance surrounding their 2015 matchup. Twelve players who saw action in that game are on the Clemson roster.
As a whole, the 33 seniors on the team have been integral in helping the program take off. With a 53-4 career mark, they've been ranked in the AP top 15 in every poll in their careers. Only one other senior class has 50 wins over the same span (Alabama, naturally).
For a player like Renfrow, who grew up in South Carolina and walked onto the team so he could play at his favorite school, the growth is even harder to put into words.
"You dream about it for sure, but it's like when you're on the basketball court as a kid and three, two, one -- you shoot a game-winning shot to win the national championship," Renfrow said. "You dream about those moments, but you never know if they're going to come to fruition. It's been so unique and so cool to be a part of this journey -- not only being a part of it, but being a fan my whole life and loving this program. That's what's been exciting to me, watching us grow and year in and year out to put a consistent team together to go make the playoff."
Swinney will be the first to tell you: Everyone had to BYOG to get there.