CLEMSON — STOP ME IF you have read this before: Clemson approaches the football season nationally ranked with aspirations of challenging for a national championship. The Tigers will know soon enough if they can live up to the preseason hype when they open against a powerful SEC opponent in what is the showcase game nationally for the opening weekend of the college football season.
We are talking about 2008, of course.
Tommy Bowden entered his 10th season as Clemson’s coach, and it appeared the Tigers were primed to win their first ACC championship under his guidance and perhaps sneak into national title talk. Clemson’s No. 9 ranking was its fourth highest in the preseason.
The chance to project Clemson into the national limelight came with a season-opening bout against Alabama in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. The Crimson Tide, ranked No. 24 in the preseason, were longing for the good old days and still not sure if second-year coach Nick Saban could lead them back to glory.
Alabama’s win was convincing, the final 34-10 score hardly indicative of the separation between the two programs. Alabama dominated both lines of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide used the win as a springboard to returning to national prominence, and finished the season with a 12-2 record and No. 6 national ranking.
Clemson never recovered.
Five years later, Clemson enters its Aug. 31 showdown with Georgia of the SEC ranked No. 8 nationally. There again is much hype surrounding Clemson and its chance of not only winning the ACC, but also entering its name into the national championship sweepstakes.
While the preseason circumstances seem similar to 2008, Dabo Swinney says there really is little parallel between the two season-openers.
“I don’t think so,” Swinney says. “We didn’t finish in the top 10 (in 2007). We didn’t win 11 games (in 2007). We hadn’t won the ACC. We hadn’t even won a division championship. So, maybe similar hype, but I think the situations are totally different, the teams are different.”
That ’08 Clemson squad was coming off a 9-4 season in which it lost to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson fans were getting restless about Bowden’s inability to win an ACC championship, which had eluded the Tigers since 1991.
By contrast, Swinney’s team is coming off an 11-2 season in which it tied for the ACC’s Atlantic Division championship and defeated LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to earn a final No. 11 national ranking.
By 2008, no Bowden team had won more than nine games in a season. Swinney’s 2013 squad is coming off 10- and 11-win seasons. The Tigers also have tied or won the ACC Atlantic Division three times in four full seasons under Swinney, and captured the league championship in 2011.
“This football team has had much different experiences in the past four seasons, as far as handling adversity and responding and having success and responding,” Swinney says. “This team has won 21 games, a lot of guys (on the current team) have won 21 games the last two years.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between the 2008 and 2013 clubs entering the first weekend of play is experience on the offensive line. The ’08 offensive line returned one starter who had 12 starts under his belt, which resulted in a tremendous mismatch against Alabama’s strong defensive front. This season’s offensive line returns four starters with a total of 59 starts and should be able to hold its own against Georgia.
Swinney believes Clemson has the vital elements — the experienced offensive line, star quarterback Tajh Boyd and all-everything receiver Sammy Watkins — to improve on an offense that ranked sixth nationally in scoring a season ago at 41 points per game, and ninth in total yards with 513 yards per game.
Swinney’s biggest concern is with his defense. Will it be the one that surrendered 37 points and 667 yards to Florida State in the season’s fourth week, or the one that limited LSU to 24 points and 219 yards in the bowl game?
You have to admire a coach who talks with great optimism about his team, bucking the norm by not sandbagging and providing a cautionary tale. So, when he is asked if the approach of this Clemson edition is different than the one that could not live up to the hype in 2008, Swinney does not back down.
“We’re going to find out,” he says. “I think we’re a different team. I think we have a different makeup. I just think we have different preparation going into it.”
To deal with all the hype, Swinney said he addressed the team early in camp to reiterate the irrelevancy of preseason polls and projections. Then he tossed a preseason college football magazine into a trash can as his team watched.
“Hey, we may get our butts handed to us (by Georgia), but I like our football team and I think we’re going to have a very good season regardless of what happens in this game.”
That certainly would be different than 2008, when Clemson went from preseason darling to postseason disappointment. Back-to-back losses to Maryland and Wake Forest left the Tigers at 3-3 and searching for a new coach. Bowden was ushered out, and Swinney was elevated from an assistant’s position.
The ’08 Tigers finished with a 7-6 record and failed to receive a vote in the final Associated Press poll. If we are to believe Swinney, that will not happen to the 2013 squad.