With Clemson entering 2012 hoping to wipe away the memories of their crushing defeat in the Orange Bowl, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers have several key starters in place to make a run at a second consecutive ACC title.
Heading into the 2012 season with several key returning players that orchestrated last season’s run to a BCS bowl—like quarterback Tajh Boyd and All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins—the Tigers are expected to be in the mix to defend their ACC crown.
Despite the way their season ended—with a brutal 70-33 loss in the Orange Bowl at the hands of West Virginia—the 2011 season will be remembered as a success for Clemson’s football program.
Dabo Swinney led the Tigers to their first ACC title in two decades, and in the process, he has re-established Clemson as one of the league’s premier gridiron powerhouses along with Virginia Tech and Florida State—two teams they defeated (they beat the Hokies twice) in 2011.
For a program that had been largely dormant, and known more for their recent history of late season collapses, the upcoming season represents a chance for Swinney’s club to prove that the culture in Clemson has indeed changed.
However, what would a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division mean for the program going forward?
Here are four things finishing second or worse in the ACC this season would mean for Clemson.
Swinney has helped to raise the profile of Clemson as a premier destination for the nation’s top prep recruits.
Case in point—the Tigers hold a verbal commitment from the class of 2013’s top prospect, Grayson (Ga.) defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, per Michael Carvell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Getting a talent like Nkemdiche is not a foreign concept for Clemson, considering that they have poached 5-star talents C.J. Spiller and Watkins from talent-rich Florida.
But if they were to struggle this fall, keeping the bulk of their current class together—one that is ranked as one of the nation’s top 10 classes by 247 Sports—could prove to be a daunting challenge.
Florida State is the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Division, but Clemson has beaten FSU in 5 of the last 8 meetings.
The blowout bowl loss to the Mountaineers symbolized the agony that the Tigers’ fan base has endured in its recent history.
After finally breaking through to win a conference that it used to dominate before the league added Florida State in 1992, the Tigers laid an egg in South Florida with the entire nation watching.
Claiming the league title in back-to-back seasons and getting back to a BCS bowl would go a long way towards repairing the damage caused by their embarrassing postseason effort, while a second place finish would be a significant setback for the program.
If the Tigers fail to defend their ACC title, Swinney could feel some heat about his future in Clemson.
Swinney has gone 25-16 since taking over on a full-time basis for former Tigers head coach Tommy Bowden three years ago—he also went 4-3 in 2008 on an interim basis after Bowden was fired midseason.
After an 8-0 start to last season that had Tigers fans harboring national title hopes almost into November, losing four of the last six games means Swinney still has a lot to prove to Clemson supporters that still may question whether he is the right coach to lead the program into the future.
Swinney has won the Atlantic Division in two of his three seasons at the helm, and adding another league crown would quell any lingering sentiments about his long-term standing at Clemson.
Sammy Watkins and the Tigers have the chance to repeat as ACC champs for the first time since 1987-88.
After Florida State fell into its decade of mediocrity, Virginia Tech has seized control of the ACC since entering the league in 2004.
However, with Clemson knocking the Hokies off twice last season and the Tigers taking five of the last eight meetings over the Seminoles, Swinney’s club has a tremendous opportunity to seize control of a conference desperately in need of a powerhouse to emerge on the national scene.
Failing to build on the momentum they gathered with last season’s jaunt to the ACC title—especially if FSU or Virginia Tech steps up to the plate and gets it done this fall—would represent taking a step back for the program.