CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney didn’t want to talk about changing perceptions Monday morning.
But his team has an opportunity to do just that on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta.
When No.14 Clemson (10-2) meets No.9 LSU (10-2) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Clemson will have a chance at its first 11-win season since the 1981 national title season, and only the fourth one ever.
“It’s a unique opportunity to win an 11th game against a top-10 team,” Swinney said. “We’re trying to position ourselves to become an elite, national-type program, and we’ve taken a step forward with back to back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1989-90.
“That hasn’t happened very often. This is another step to becoming the type of program we want to be and it’s going to be a very difficult challenge.”
Both ESPN and Yahoo! Sports rate the Chick-fil-A as the fourth-best bowl matchup; the only BCS games ahead are the national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame and the Fiesta Bowl pitting Kansas State and Oregon.
“I truly believe this is a BCS-type bowl game,” Swinney said. “The Chick-fil-A Bowl does a great job. I’ve had the privilege of being at several of their games, and this is as good a matchup as there is out there. It should be an exciting evening and a great bowl season for both fan bases.”
It is also an opportunity for Clemson to soothe some of the pain of the regular season-ending loss to South Carolina, the Tigers’ fourth consecutive defeat to their in-state rival.
Clemson began the season in the Georgia Dome with a 26-19 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic win over Auburn. Ending the season with a win over LSU would be significantly more important for offseason momentum and perception.
“We’re excited about being in Atlanta,” Swinney said. “We started the season in Atlanta against the Tigers and we’ll end the season in Atlanta against the Tigers. It should be a great night on Dec. 31.”
Senior center Dalton Freeman agreed.
“If you want to be a consistently outstanding program you have to play national championship contenders like LSU,” he said. “They have won the national championship in recent years and always seem to be in the mix for the championship. They have outstanding players and it will be a great challenge, but a great opportunity for us.”
It shapes up as an intriguing battle of offense vs. defense. Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle system is in the top 13 nationally in scoring offense, total offense and passing offense, while LSU’s defense, led by coordinator John Chavis, is in the top 11 in total defense, scoring defense and rush defense.
“They’re as good as it gets,” Swinney said. “I’ve known coach Chavis for a long time, and they’re one of the top defenses in the country year-in, year-out, going to back to when he was at Tennessee and I was at Alabama. Their defense is built for championships. They’ve developed great depth and have an outstanding group. Their front four is as good as anyone I’ve seen.
“They’ve played great opponents. Like our guys, I like how they’ve developed. We’re going to talk about how we can contain some of those pass rushers (like ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo).”
LSU coach Les Miles feels the same way about Clemson junior quarterback Tajh Boyd, who was named a first-team All-American last week by the American Football Coaches Association.
“He’s as talented a quarterback prospect as we’ve faced this season,” Miles said, “With his ability to extend plays with his feet and gain ground with his feet he’s a very talented quarterback in that offense. He gets the most out of his talent and he’s very capable. I see Tajh Boyd as someone we’re going to have to consistently figure out how to game plan for and figure out how we contain him. I don’t know if you really contain a great player like that, you just have to affect them.”
Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan said the bowl had just 298 tickets left to sell as of Monday morning, but 18,000 will be available through both Clemson and LSU ranging from $80-90. IPTAY members may request tickets by contacting Clemson’s ticket office at 1-800-CLEMSON by 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’ll be a matchup of Death Valley North and Death Valley South,” Stokan said. “Atlanta will be Death Valley on Dec. 31, and Clemson and LSU will be vying for which Death Valley becomes victorious.”