Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a 12-part series previewing Virginia’s 2013 opponents.
The atmosphere made for the right time to put it out there.
It was New Year’s Eve in the Georgia Dome. By way of a last-second field goal, Clemson had just dramatically defeated LSU, an SEC giant. The spotlight was on – and Dabo Swinney went for it.
“You can't win 12 until you win 11," Swinney said. "You can't win a national championship until you learn how to win games like this.
"This was a landmark win."
That was some seven months ago in Atlanta. Swinney, in his fourth year as Clemson’s head coach, had just guided the Tigers to their first 11-win season since 1981 after a dramatic 25-24 victory over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Next year was already here.
Yes, once again, Clemson will have a loaded squad in 2013. On paper, the team certainly has the potential to cruise to its second ACC title in three years.
But can it take the next step? To seriously compete for a national title?
Certain pieces are in place to at least make it a possibility.
The Tigers are 21-5 over the past two seasons, and they’ve had one key player leading the way. And, yes, Tajh Boyd is back.
The reigning ACC Player of the Year has thrown for nearly 8,000 yards in the last two seasons with 69 touchdowns to 25 interceptions. On Jan. 9, Boyd, a redshirt senior, announced he would stay at Clemson and not enter the NFL Draft.
"As explosive as we've been, there's more to attain," Boyd told reporters. "There's more out there for us."
But not all of it came back with him.
In 2013, Boyd will be playing without DeAndre Hopkins, his top receiver (205 career catches, 27 touchdowns). There will also be no Andre Ellington, a running back with 3,436 career yards.
But there’s still Sammy Watkins – and the hope he returns to his rookie year form.
Watkins, a dynamic 6-foot-1, 205-pound receiver, emerged on the national college football scene in 2011, making 82 receptions to go with 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, suspension and injuries limited him last year. Sure, his numbers – 57 catches, 708 yards, three scores – were decent, but they hardly made for the encore Tiger fans were expecting.
Roderick McDowell, a 5-9, 195-pound senior, is the likely candidate to replace Ellington. He has all of 674 career rushing yards, which is nearly 100 yards short of Boyd’s total in that category.
The only loss on the offensive line comes in the form of Rimington Award finalist Dalton Freeman at center.
Defensively, five starters are back plus defensive end Vic Beasley, who tallied eight sacks last year, and safety Travis Blanks, who totalled 51 tackles and a Freshman All-American nod.
Chandler Catanzaro headlines the special teams unit. The senior kicker made 18 of 19 field goal attempts in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest factor to Clemson’s 2013 national championship hopes lies in its handling of the schedule.
How will the Tigers start (they open things with Georgia on Aug. 31)? How will they finish (they close the regular season with their annual rivalry clash at South Carolina on Nov. 30)?