A new vibe in Clemson

CLEMSON – There is a different feel about Clemson football these days.

It has nothing directly to do with the thousands of students who camped out around Memorial Stadium last week and lined up Monday to pick up their tickets for Clemson-Georgia.

It has nothing directly to do with the ESPN mobile studio bus that rolled into town and spent a day in the WestZone earlier this month, or the armada of Worldwide Leader personnel who'll set up at Bowman Field and Memorial Stadium this weekend for the network's popular College GameDay show.

It has nothing directly to do with the humming feeling of anticipation surrounding the 82,000 fans who'll pack in Saturday night to watch the nation's No.5 team take on its No.8 team before an ABC national TV audience.

Yet, all those feelings are connected.

Over the last three years, those who've paid close attention to Clemson football have noticed a change. A feeling – connected to Dabo Swinney's tenure – that mediocrity wasn't good enough anymore.

It was all about pursuing the crystal football which has eluded the program's grasp since Danny Ford's magical run in 1981, and doing everything necessary to make that quest a realistic goal. With just hours left before the much-anticipated 2013 season kicks off, it feels closer than ever. Over the last two-plus years, Swinney has erased the feelings left by 2010's dismal 6-7 season, which concluded with a loss to South Florida before thousands of sparkling blue seats in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium.

He and those around him have replaced that ugly atmosphere with a feeling of hope. A feeling that even "good" isn't good enough. Only the best is good enough.

Brent Venables understands. Before coming to Clemson in January 2012, he spent 13 seasons on Oklahoma's staff as a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. The Sooners won at least 10 games 10 times, including a BCS national title in 2000 and BCS title game appearance in 2008.

"I think you'd be lying if you said, over time, when we were at Oklahoma a long time together, there comes a certain point where yeah, 10 wins, 11 wins isn't enough, and maybe winning isn't enough," he said. "How you win can become overly important. That happens in some places when you have a consistent level of success. This is what the expectations are, this is what Oklahoma is. What's expected. From a coaching standpoint, you recruit players that come in and understand those expectations. That's the, quote unquote, ‘vibe' that's in those offices."

Venables was lured to Clemson to replace Kevin Steele partially because he needed a change. A fresh start.

Following that 12-2 2008 BCS title game appearance, here were Oklahoma's records and postseason destinations: 8-5, Sun Bowl. 12-2, Fiesta Bowl. 10-3, Insight Bowl.

10 wins weren't good enough anymore.

That, according to Venables, isn't such a bad thing. And he's starting to feel the same thing inside the WestZone.

"As a coach, I have the same expectation," he said. " I expect to win, I expect to practice well, and expect to spend the same amount of time with the players. I think that same vibe is here, without reservation."

That vibe isn't just something you assign to your program. It's built over time. It's built with a 21-6 record over the past two seasons.

It's built when the administration makes the commitment to build the WestZone (a project which started, it must be said, under Tommy Bowden's watch) and keeps adding on, year after year. It's built when you continue to add to your facilities with projects like the $10 million indoor football complex that opened last December.

It's built when you make a commitment to hiring the best staff possible, from spending $2.1 million annually on Venables and offensive coordinator Chad Morris to acquiring an ever-expanding flock of support staffers that fill the football offices.

It's built when you stand toe-to-toe with the SEC's best teams and you don't back down. It's built when you believe – and when your fans believe – that you can do so on a regular basis. That vibe is a feel – backed up with on-the-field actions – that you have arrived.

In many ways, that 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl was the end and the beginning for Clemson.

In that second half, Tajh Boyd relieved Kyle Parker and his broken ribs and saw his first extended collegiate action, nearly leading Clemson back to a victory and a winning record. It didn't happen, but days later, Swinney purged his staff and backed away from micromanaging, letting Morris and, eventually, Venables, use their coaching philosophies for success.

Three years later, Boyd has developed into a Heisman Trophy candidate, Morris runs one of the hottest offenses in college football and Venables' defense is trending upward (although it will face a stiff test Saturday night in Aaron Murray and Georgia).

What unfolds over the next three months will dictate how Clemson fans feel when the clock strikes 2014, but for now, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the vibe enveloping Memorial Stadium.

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