Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes his team took a major step forward last season. And Swinney knows what's out there if the Tigers make a similar stride this fall.
"If we do the things we want to do, then hopefully, we can enter into that championship phase," Swinney says. "It's one step at a time as we go through this journey."
The ride sped up last New Year's Eve when Clemson used a strong defense and a last-gasp, fourth-quarter drive to topple LSU at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and finish 11-2 for the team's highest win total in more than three decades. A few days later came another boost when Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Tajh Boyd returned for his final season at quarterback.
While junior All-American receiver DeAndre Hopkins went to the NFL, the Tigers have speedy Sammy Watkins back and eager to show the form that helped him catch 82 passes and 12 touchdowns his freshman year.
All that made Clemson the favorite to win its second ACC title in three seasons. Not that Swinney and his staff are taking any shortcuts on the way.
Swinney, offensive coordinator Chad Morris and defensive coordinator Brent Venables have rolled out more schemes earlier on than in years past because of Clemson's increased experience. All but three of the Tigers' projected starters are juniors, seniors or graduate students.
Morris wants the Tigers to squeeze off more snaps this season than a year ago when their 1,062 plays were the seventh highest total in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The defense improved from the start of the season to the end in Venables' first season. The group had allowed nearly four touchdowns a game the first six weeks of the season. It ended with its best performance in the bowl, holding LSU to eight three-and-outs, including one that set up the final, game-winning drive.
No one, though, is ready to look past the opener when Clemson takes on another top-10 program in Georgia at Death Valley.
"We are still a long ways away," Morris said. "We're not ready to start signing autographs yet."
Here are five things to watch at Clemson this season:
1: SEASON OPENER: A loss to Georgia won't deter Clemson's ACC hopes, but it would dent its chances for even bigger things — something Swinney's discussed since the LSU victory. A defeat would also have people joking about the "same ol' Clemson," a team that can't perform on the big stage. The last time Clemson opened in the top 10 and with such high expectations was in 2008. That time, the ninth-ranked Tigers were manhandled in the Georgia Dome, 34-10. Coach Tommy Bowden lasted just five more games and Swinney took over.
2: BOY, OH, BOYD: Many of the high hopes center on Boyd, the senior quarterback who's thrown for 7,724 yards and 69 touchdowns the past two seasons. Boyd didn't return to chalk up more gaudy numbers — he probably can't avoid it given Clemson's high-speed attack — but to win games. "That's what I'm looking for," he said.
3: THE RUNNING GAME: Clemson opens the year without Andre Ellington, who twice rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his Clemson career. Swinney and Morris believe that Rod McDowell, a fifth-year player who's sat behind NFL backs C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Ellington, is capable to assume the lead back spot. He'll be helped by an experienced offensive line and Boyd, who was second on the Tigers in rushing a year ago.
4: SECONDARY WOES: Clemson defensive struggles last season came in large part because of problems in the secondary. The Tigers lost counted on players like Martin Jenkins, Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland to injury and it took most of the season to sort things out. Those three players are back and the Tigers brought in six young DBs in recruiting to shore up its weakest spot from a year ago.
5: COUNT ON CATMAN: If Clemson games are close, it has a reliable closer in senior kicker Chandler Catanzaro. The Groza Award candidate made 18 of 19 field goals last season, including the 37-yarder to beat LSU as time expired at the Georgia Dome.
Predicted finish in the ACC: First in the Atlantic Division.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
Follow Pete Iacobelli on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PIacobelli_AP