"Unthinkable" within Clemson's reach

CLEMSON - The banner hangs on the side of Clemson's sparkling new $10 million indoor practice facility, hanging high above the FieldTurf and impossible to miss.

"Best Is The Standard," it trumpets.

Dabo Swinney loves motivational slogans and sayings. The amount of football-related propaganda that covers the surfaces and flashes on flat-screens across the WestZone and practice complex would make a 1980s Eastern European strongman nod in approval.

Yet, for some reason Friday afternoon, "Best Is The Standard" caught my eye as I watched the Tigers stretch and prepare for their first full practice of the 2013 season.

"We hear it literally after every practice. And before every practice," junior defensive tackle Josh Watson said of the phrase. "It gets engrained in you. That's the way we live, on and off the field. It never really gets old."

It fits what this season is all about – or at least what Clemson hopes it is about – starting with Aug. 31's much-anticipated season-opening top-10 showdown against Georgia and running through Nov.30's rivalry showdown at South Carolina, and perhaps beyond.

Swinney's fifth full season as the Tigers' head coach opens with huge expectations, fueled by 2012's 11-2 campaign and the talent-rich roster that sweated through the first day of practice. There is the realistic ideal that with the right breaks and correct bounces – especially against the SEC bookends of the schedule – that Clemson could make a run at its first national title since 1981.

There's no secret what Clemson's goal is this season. (Roy Philpott)
They're certainly on the national radar: at No.8 in the USA Today preseason top 25 coaches' poll, they won't have to leap over many foes to make it to Pasadena for the final BCS national title game. Boyd has been a darling of national writers who've made the trek to Clemson for preseason features: unlike Texas A&M party-boy quarterback Johnny Manziel, he's been in the spotlight for all the right reasons.

Clemson wouldn't be in this position if he'd declared for the NFL draft last January, Swinney's biggest offseason victory.

His return – plus that of caffeinated offensive coordinator Chad Morris – makes Clemson a clear ACC favorite, but also creates big-time expectations.

There is huge anticipation for this season, as shown by the fans who stood next to the gates of the practice facility with signs and chanted the C-L-E-M-S-O-N cadence chant as trams carrying players passed by.

They're excited. They're ready. Now all Clemson has to do is deliver.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU was a watershed moment for Swinney's tenure: a win over a top-15 SEC foe. Sure, the Tigers had a pair of wins over Auburn, the win over South Carolina that sealed Swinney's full-time status and a Music City Bowl win over Kentucky. But none seem to have resonated like fourth-and-16 and Chandler Catanzaro putting one right between the pipes as time expired in the Georgia Dome.

Tommy Bowden's tenure was marked by almost-but-not-quite, with the Tigers playing the role of Sisyphus, forever cursed to push a boulder up the hill but never all the way to the top. Swinney has changed that. An ACC title. A pair of outright ACC Atlantic Division championships and a share of a third.

Have there been bumps? Sure. The Orange Bowl embarrassment against West Virginia. The 6-7 season that cost in-over-his-head offensive coordinator Billy Napier his job. Four consecutive losses to South Carolina.

But there is an inexorable sense of progress. The Tigers are 21-5 over the last two seasons, the first back-to-back 10-win seasons since a guy named Ford roamed Death Valley's sidelines. And last year's 11-win season was the first since the 1981 national title campaign.

I've covered this program since 2005, and this is easily the most excited I have seen fans, and with good reason. Boyd is back. He has Sammy Watkins to throw to and four returning offensive line starters to protect him.

Brent Venables' defense should take another step forward from the progress it made in 2012's second half, assuming the problems in the back end can be fixed with veterans like Darius Robinson and Martin Jenkins returning from injury and an infusion of talent led by highly-touted freshman Mackensie Alexander.

"It was probably unthinkable for Daniel Rodriguez when he had guys shooting at him and going to war that he'd be at Clemson two years later. Just doing the unthinkable. No one really thinks we can win the championship this year, and we want to do the unthinkable."

Of course, the last time expectations were this high, Clemson laid an absolute egg in that same Georgia Dome against Nick Saban and Alabama, the beginning of the end of Bowden's tenure.

If this group slips, the backlash will be ugly. Do I think it will happen? No.

This team is better. Tougher. More talented. There are reasons to believe the hype. Reason to believe Clemson can, again, be "the best."

That's the standard Swinney has set for this team. And nothing less will do.

His new phrase, Watson reports, is "Unthinkable."

"It was unthinkable to people that were on boats one day that a metal cylinder would be flying in the air getting us back and forth," Watson said.

"It was probably unthinkable for Daniel Rodriguez when he had guys shooting at him and going to war that he'd be at Clemson two years later. Just doing the unthinkable. No one really thinks we can win the championship this year, and we want to do the unthinkable."

It's not nearly as unthinkable as it used to be.

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