Back Clemson’s Championship Time is Now

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Clemson’s Championship Time is Now

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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This may be the most talented Tiger team since 1981. And with two games against the SEC, a historic losing streak to their in-state rivals in desperate need of an end and the ebb and flow of two emotional seasons serving as the base, Clemson appears ready to make a move.

Even in the hills of the upstate, the echoes have long since faded. While Danny Ford's 12-0 1981 national championship team will live forever in Clemson lore, perfection now lingers mostly through  newspaper clippings and stories passed down to a new generation of Tiger fans not yet born when the likes of Homer Jordan, William Perry and Terry Kinard were college football's best and biggest story.

In recent years, head coach Dabo Swinney has been the catalyst for Clemson's run at a modern-day return to glory. With a record of 22-6 the past two seasons, these Tigers have prompted some comparisons to Ford's dominant teams of the 1980s. This progression has not been without flaws, see the school's second-ever four-game losing streak to rival South Carolina and the West Virginia Orange Bowl debacle, but Clemson's fireplace mantle and national profile is now a little more robust.

Expectations are already at a fever pitch for this upcoming fall, and for good reason. The Tigers boast a bonafide Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Tajh Boyd, an All-American receiver in Sammy Watkins and the core of a developing defensive unit that showed second-half strides under now second-year coordinator Brent Venables. Couple that returning production with critical momentum earned from last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl triumph over LSU and the image of a contender is starting to take shape.

"You can't win 12 until you win 11," Swinney explained of their dramatic one-point postseason win over the 2011 SEC Champions. "You can't win a national championship until you learn how to win games like this. This was a landmark win."

Early pre-season polls have Clemson listed as a top ten regular, with a top five slotting far from out of the discussion. While a look at the Tiger depth chart legitimizes that billing, a deeper look at the polls reinforces the aforementioned championship aspirations. The ACC's noted struggles in non-conference games has hurt league teams in the national rankings. Some media pundits have suggested that, given the year, a team could go undefeated yet still be kept out of the national title race due to strength of schedule liabilities. Thanks to the conference that has claimed the crown seven years running, this is a program that will not have such problems.

Clemson will start and finish the regular season with perhaps the two division favorites in the SEC East: Georgia and South Carolina. Week one's clash with the Bulldogs will be a national showcase, a Saturday night ABC telecast in front of close to 90,000 fans in Death Valley. The Tigers' annual finale against the archrival Gamecocks may very well be for much more than bragging rights. Those pairings, circumstances depending, could even give Clemson a rare one-loss buffer.       

In conference, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech are all off the crossover rotation, the Tigers don't have to face Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where they have dropped four straight, and get defending ACC Champion Florida State at home. The Seminoles' season just got a little more interesting as the transfer of spring's first-team quarterback Clint Trickett leaves FSU woefully inexperienced under center. The 'Noles haven't beaten Clemson in Memorial Stadium since 2001 and will likely be starting a freshman quarterback come October's meeting.

Some outsiders are embracing the Tigers as one of the national championship frontrunners. Others are taking a more cautious wait-and-see approach. Prudence be damned, this is Clemson's year.

Boyd, who spurned the NFL to return for his senior season, is the centerpiece. He completed over 67% of his passes in 2012 for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns, good for fifth nationally. His composure and moxie are just as quantifiable. Boyd has the makings of a star capable of leading his team to the promised land. He also has the right running-mate in Watkins. Bothered by injuries as a sophomore, expect a repeat of his freshman numbers where he caught 83 passes for 1,225 yards and 12 scores.

"The guy is great. He has the ability to run and throw, he is a dual-threat quarterback and is going to be great at the next level," explained former record-setting wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "I wasn't surprised that he decided to come back. From a maturity level and leading the team, I feel like he has a lot that he can prove this season and I feel like he is going to prove that."

For all of the on-field fixtures, this is a team with its heart and soul in the right place as well. Army veteran Daniel Rodriguez, a wide receiver and special teams star, has brought a focus and toughness that coaches and players alike have acknowledged simply wasn't there prior to his arrival. Back up the hill and into the locker room, the Tigers are primed and ready.

"It was blessing that Daniel chose Clemson, I feel like he could of chose any team in the nation. It was great having him in the locker room, just getting on guys. People would say they were sore or complain and Daniel would look over with that little smirk and laugh. Guys always wanted to be tougher than they were just because Daniel Rodriguez was in the locker room and this guy has metal in him still from the war," Hopkins continued. "They say greatness is a disease and that is what he has and it spread throughout the team. In the LSU game, when we were down, he was the only guy on the sidelines in the offensive huddle telling us we could do it."  

With a growing national spotlight, and late August's clash with powerful Georgia looming, critics are expecting a return to the days of near misses for Clemson. A more objective look at the situation suggests a return to a different era and time.

This may be the most talented Tiger team since 1981. And with two games against the SEC, a historic losing streak to their in-state rivals in desperate need of an end and the ebb and flow of two emotional seasons serving as the basis for 2013, Clemson appears ready  to make a move.

Consider the cage rattled. Memories of what once was may soon be next.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports