A little less than four years ago, having just secured a full-time gig as Clemson's new head coach and assembled his first coaching staff, Dabo Swinney put his head together with former recruiting coordinator Billy Napier and new recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott and hatched a plan.
The Tigers had lost recruiting ground during Swinney's run as 'interim' head coach, and with numbers already limited, the coaches made a strategic decision: take a small 2009 recruiting class and begin investing time and resources into recruiting the Tigers' 2010 and 2011 classes.
The results of Swinney's farsightedness have so far been impressive.
The coaching staff has put together a string of three straight top-20 classes, and is now working on a fourth. The program has won 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in more than two decades, and there is growing evidence that Clemson is installing itself as a force to be reckoned with at the pinnacle strata of college football.
The team that will play LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl is a combination of a handful of key players left over from Tommy Bowden's highly-rated 2008 recruiting class - a group Swinney played a major roll in signing - and Swinney's first three recruiting classes as head coach.
Over the course of the 2012 season, the Tigers' snaps from scrimmage were relatively evenly divided across the various classes.
Members of the Tigers' 'Dandy Dozen' 2009 recruiting class played 5,297 snaps; the 2010 class accounted for 4,753 snaps; the 29-man 2011 class played 4,395 snaps; and first-year freshmen from the class of 2012 played 1,116 snaps.
Following is a closer look at Swinney's first four recruiting classes, and the part they've played so far in transforming the program.
2009: The Dandy Dozen
Swinney pulled off a late coup in signing highly-rated quarterback Tajh Boyd, capping a 12-man class that has proved to be extraordinarily productive despite the loss of offensive tackle J.K. Jay to injury and top-10 wide receiver Bryce McNeal after minimal impact.
Eight of the remaining 10 players are starters on this year's team, including Boyd, linebackers Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey; offensive linemen Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley; defensive end Malliciah Goodman; safety Jonathan Meeks; and fullback Darrell Smith. Linebacker Corico Wright started two seasons before playing a reserve role this season, while running back Rod McDowell is currently the No. 1 backup to Ellington.
2010: 2-year investment pays off
Swinney's investment in his 2010 class paid off with a group of 24 players which was ranked 19th in the nation by Rivals.
Out of the original signing class, there was significant attrition: first with defensive end Corey Crawford and wide receiver Martavis Bryant attending prep school and deferring to the 2011 class, and the loss of linebacker Rickey Chaney and receiver Evan McKelvey as non-qualifiers. Running back Demont Buice later chose to transfer, while defensive back Desmond Brown and wide receiver Joe Craig were dismissed from the team.
Most of the remaining players have developed into first or second-team contributors, including current starters DeAndre Hopkins, Josh Watson, David Beasley, Bashaud Breeland, Gifford Timothy and Garry Peters. The group also includes injured starters Darius Robinson and Martin Jenkins, as well as regular-rotation players Vic Beasley, Tavaris Barnes, Sam Cooper and D.J. Howard. Several players are still waiting to make their mark as full-time performers, including redshirting linebacker Justin Parker, offensive guards Kalon Davis and Reid Webster, and defensive lineman Tra Thomas.
2011: Stars, lots of stars
Swinney's 2011 recruiting class is one of the highest-rated in school history, led by four five-star prospects. While the overall impact of the class has been significant, just one of the five-star players is currently in the starting lineup - that being 2011 freshman All-American receiver Sammy Watkins.
Linebacker Stephone Anthony earned a starting position at the end of last season, and played in the starting middle linebacker spot for the first two-thirds of the season. He's played sparingly in recent games, however.
Linebacker Tony Steward suffered through a lost freshman season after having a second ACL injury just past the NCAA deadline for a medical redshirt. He has been a special teams regular for the Tigers this season, but played just 73 snaps from scrimmage in 2012.
Running back Mike Bellamy saw spot action for the Tigers as a true freshman, but struggled with ball security and then was academically ineligible to return to school for his sophomore season.
Linebacker/fullback Colton Walls decided to give up football, while defensive lineman Kevin Dodd and offensive lineman Isaiah Battle spent their first fall in prep school before enrolling for 2012.
Watkins is one of five current starters from the 2011 class, along with Crawford, defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams, and wide receiver Adam Humphries. Second-team players include Anthony, quarterback Cole Stoudt, Bryant, wide receiver Charone Peake and offensive guard/center Ryan Norton, while Stanton Seckinger is working third at tight end, as is Rod Byers at defensive end.
Players still waiting to make an impact as everyday players include offensive linemen Spencer Region and Joe Gore, defensive lineman Jerome Maybank, quarterbacks Morgan Roberts and Tony McNeal, kicker Ammon Lakip, linebackers Lateek Townsend and B.J. Goodson (both special teams regulars), tight end/offensive tackle Eric Mac Lain, and safety Robert Smith.
2012: Moving toward a redshirt majority
A dozen first-year freshmen played for the Tigers in 2011, while just seven played in 2012. That group includes one starter - freshman All-America defensive back Travis Blanks - as well as six players who've seen action in varying roles, including defensive tackles D.J. Reader, Carlos Watkins and Dodd, punter/kicker Bradley Pinion, running back Zac Brooks, and Battle, as a reserve offensive lineman.
Players who redshirted this season include tight end Jay Jay McCullough, offensive linemen Patrick Destefano, Oliver Jones and Jay Guillermo, quarterback Chad Kelly, wide receiver Germone Hopper, defensive back Ronald Geohaghan, defensive end Martin Aiken, and linebacker T.J. Burrell.
Two signees ended up at Hargrave Military - defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive back Cordrea Tankersley - and plan to enroll next month. Two players were academic non-qualifiers and enrolled elsewhere - defensive back Marty Williams and defensive lineman Josh Brown.