CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney said his program is on “the doorstep of greatness” following Clemson’s win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“You can’t win 12 (games) until you win 11,” Swinney said. “You can’t win a national championship until you learn how to win games like this.”
Is Clemson close to becoming a national title contender?
An analysis of national champions since 2001 found there are characteristics shared by BCS title teams. How does Clemson stack up? Do the Tigers have the proper ingredients?
REQUIRED COMPONENTS First-round picks
Every national title team since 2001 has had at least two starters who became first-round NFL draft picks. Alabama (corner Dee Milliner, defensive tackle Jesse Williams, center Barrett Jones) will continue the trend. Teams need players who present physical mismatches. Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is projected to be a 2014 first-rounder even after a disappointing 2012 season. Clemson requires a difference-maker to emerge on defense.
Preseason Top 10 ranking
Clemson could begin next season in the top 10 of polls, even with the early departure of receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
This is important as 10 of the last 12 national champs began the season in the top 10. Notre Dame was attempting to become the first team in the BCS era to begin a season unranked and win a national title.
Dominant defensive line
Elite defensive line play has been the key in the SEC’s seven straight national titles. Nine of the last 11 national champions produced at least one defensive lineman selected in the first 35 picks of the draft and Alabama figures to make it 10 of the last 12 title winners.
Clemson does not have any proven defensive line stars but Clemson does have a number of intriguing young players, including defensive tackle D.J. Reader and defensive end Vic Beasley, who registered eight sacks in a part-time role. Freshman tackle Carlos Watkins is talented and figures to be more involved next season.
Six of the last seven BCS champions ranked 21st or better in converting third downs, converting at a rate of at least 44 percent. Clemson ranked fifth in 2012 at 51.7 percent.
Elite rushing attack
The last six national champions have finished in the top 20 in rushing offense. Alabama ranks 19th in the country. Clemson graduates 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington and has little proven depth at the position. Roderick McDowell will likely top the spring depth chart at tailback.
Stopping the run
Take away the run and opponents are forced into third-and-long situations and become one-dimensional. Run defense also speaks to the physical nature of a team. This season, Alabama ranked No. 1 in the nation in run defense, Notre Dame ranked fourth. Ten of the last 12 national champions have had top 20 rushing defenses. Clemson must improve in this area, ranking 59th, though showing improvement against LSU.
LUXURY ITEMS Hurry-up offense
Clemson’s offense took a toll on LSU as a number of LSU players dealt with cramps on Dec. 31, when Clemson outgained LSU 159 yards to 1 in the fourth quarter.
Clemson totaled a whopping 100 plays. It doesn’t hurt to have an up-tempo offense. Of the last eight national champions, four – Texas (2005), Florida (2006), Alabama (2009) and Auburn (2010) – ranked in the 20 of offensive plays.
Having an elite college quarterback is not a prerequisite for a national title team. Ohio State won with Craig Krenzel, Miami won with Ken Dorsey, and LSU won with Matt Mauck. But it sure doesn’t hurt to have one, either. Just look at Auburn (Cam Newton) and Texas (Vince Young). Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd will return for his senior season and he could be a Heisman contender.
While Swinney is relatively light on experience, having completed his fourth full season, five BCS-title winning coaches since 2001 (Larry Coker at Miami, Gene Chizik at Auburn, Jim Tressel at Ohio State, Urban Meyer at Florida and Pete Carroll at Southern Cal) had four or fewer years of experience as power conference head coaches.
Clemson has some of the ingredients to have a special 2013. Clemson is excellent on third down, the Tigers have at least one projected first-rounder in Sammy Watkins, Clemson could begin the year ranked in the top 10 and will benefit from an improving defensive front. But Clemson has questions surrounding its ground game and defensive front.
The Tigers might be on the doorstep of greatness, but there are questions to answer before it can enter and join college football’s elite.