ATLANTA — Dabo Swinney again has Clemson on the verge of an 11-victory season, a milestone reached by only three teams in school history.
Reaching 11 wins might convince Swinney to call his No. 14 Tigers great. It’s a title he’s willing to place on No. 9 LSU, which will face Clemson on Monday night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Clemson (10-2) is coming off a 27-17 loss to in-state rival South Carolina. It finished the 2011 season at 10-4, when a lopsided 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl kept the Tigers from 11 wins.
Swinney said LSU (10-2) deserves to be called great because the Tigers won a recent national championship (2007) and played for the title last year. He’s not as generous when describing his own team.
“LSU is a great team,” Swinney said. “We’re not a great team, not yet. We think we’re on our way from a program standpoint. LSU is a great football team. They’re a great program and they’ve earned that with the consistency that they’ve played with. They played for a national championship less than 12 months ago and were a play or two away from being in it again this year.
“They represent where we want to go from a program standpoint to that type of national competitive consistency, so it’s a great opportunity for us.”
Clemson finished 12-0 in its 1981 national championship season. It was 11-0 in 1948 and 11-1 in 1978. No other Clemson team has won more than 10 games.
“So 11 wins in Clemson history has been a pretty rare thing,” Swinney said. “And to be at the doorstep of that for the second year in a row is pretty special.”
Swinney knows it would mean more to reach 11 wins, especially against one of the Southeastern Conference’s most prominent teams.
Clemson scored at least 37 points in 10 of its 12 games. The exceptions were its two games against SEC teams – a 26-19 opening win over Auburn at the Georgia Dome and a 27-17 loss to South Carolina in its final regular-season game.
Now with another SEC opponent there are more questions about Clemson’s ability to maintain its typical high-scoring pace against a more physical SEC defense.
“I could see how a team outside the SEC could play with a chip on their shoulder because a lot of people say we’re the best conference,” said LSU safety Eric Reid. “I know they’re going to come out with that sort of intensity from the jump and we’re going to have to match it.”
Swinney has tried to prepare his team for LSU, which ranks eighth in the nation in total defense, with especially tough bowl practices.
“LSU is a very physical team, have big guys up front and big backs,” defensive end Malliciah Goodman said. “So you just have to prepare to be physical with them for four quarters. That’s the thing that we’ve been doing like coach Swinney talked about with practices, just having that mentality of it’s going to be a four-quarter physical battle. You have to prepare your mind that way and fight that way.”
Clemson ranked sixth in the nation with its average of 42.3 points in its spread offense, utilizing quarterback Tajh Boyd and the speed of running back Andre Ellington and such receivers as DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
Swinney said he does not agree with those who say a spread offense can’t hold up in a test of physical teams.
“I mean, people get caught up in you have to get an I-formation to be physical,” Swinney said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. But it’s like saying that you can only run the option if you’re a triple-option team or something. We have elements of everything in our offense. And we pride ourselves on being a very physical football team. We do it a little bit differently than maybe LSU.”
Defensive tackle Josh Watson said a win over LSU could help change the national perception of Clemson’s program.
“This is a huge game, just for momentum in the offseason but also to take a step as a program to get into the elite teams in the nation,” Watson said. “We’re about 10 plays from being undefeated this year and we want to step into that top tier of teams and be recognized as a top 10 team every year, in the preseason and at the end of the season. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best, and LSU is one of the best teams in the country.”