CLEMSON — DABO SWINNEY does not hide the goals he sets for his Clemson football team, at least not to the media. The same five goals are posted every season on the same wall of the team meeting room, which also serves as a news conference setting, in the West End Zone of Memorial Stadium.
1.Win the opener
2.Win the Atlantic Division
3.Win the state championship
4.Win the ACC championship game
5.Win the bowl game
The difference from previous seasons is that should Clemson accomplish every one of those goals including defeating Georgia in the opener and South Carolina for the mythical state title during the 2013 season, the Tigers would cart the BCS national championship trophy off the Rose Bowl field in Pasadena, Calif.
Do not misinterpret that last sentence. I am not saying Clemson will meet all of its goals and will capture the national crown. What I am saying is that, for the first time in a long time, an ACC team has the same route to the national title game as every SEC team enjoys every season.
On the strength of the football played within the league, any SEC team that wins the conference championship game has a legitimate chance to play in the national title contest. The past seven SEC champions have won national titles.
It is different in the ACC. The league annually produces a couple of teams worthy of national rankings, but generally has not churned out enough quality depth to be considered among the better football leagues in the country.
As a result, winning the ACC championship does not necessarily put that team in the national championship picture, as it does with the SEC. No ACC team has played in the BCS national championship game since the 2000 season. That is when Florida State, which won the championship following the 1999 season, appeared in the third of three consecutive national title games.
Every indication is that the ACC will be as weak as ever this coming season. So, under normal circumstances, Clemson could run the table in conference play and win the league title game but not necessarily be No. 1 or No. 2 in the BCS final rankings that determine the national championship game participants.
Except that Clemson plays SEC members Georgia and USC outside the league this season. Wins against those two opponents hardly givens would secure immeasurable credibility on the national stage for Clemson.
The Tigers gained a measure of national respect with their 25-24 victory against ninth-ranked LSU of the SEC in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, a win that is likely to project Clemson high into most preseason rankings this August. The optimism has Clemson fans abuzz about the prospect of a big season.
Swinney likes what he sees on the horizon.
I like our team, Swinney says, modestly. Weve got a lot of work to do. As I told them (Wednesday) in the team meeting, the difference between 6-7 and 11-2 is that much.
Swinney then holds his index finger and thumb about a quarter of an inch apart.
Swinney says he has fewer questions about this team than any of his previous four, mostly because his offensive and defensive lines are loaded with quality and depth. He also has a third-season starting quarterback in Tajh Boyd and a highly acclaimed wide receiver in Sammy Watkins. With seven starters returning, the defense is expected to be much improved under second-year coordinator Brent Venables.
The biggest area of concern is the defensive secondary, where eight newcomers will challenge the six returning players, according to Swinney.
There was no competition and no depth there last year, he says. Thats fixin to change, drastically.
The other thing that could change drastically is the Tigers national prestige if Clemson can follow the win against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with another against Georgia in the Aug. 31 opener at Death Valley. The Tigers would then vault into the national top-10 rankings.
Of course, Clemson has been here before. It entered the 2008 season as the nations ninth-ranked team and was destroyed by No. 24 Alabama, 34-10, in the opener. The Tigers never recovered and by mid-season Swinney had replaced Tommy Bowden as coach.
Perhaps the difference this time around is that a loss to Georgia in the opener would not turn the season on end. At the same time, a win against Georgia would project Clemson into the national championship picture.
That would be one goal accomplished and four to go. Then, should Clemson check off the four remaining goals, it would win the national championship. Not likely, but this season is the rare occasion when the possibility at least exists for an ACC team.