ATLANTA - It’s been 31 years since the Clemson Tigers won 11 games in a football season.
It’s been nearly 12 months since they last had the chance.
The opportunity to join a select group of Tiger teams comes again tonight when No. 14 Clemson (10-2) takes on No. 9 LSU (10-2) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Only three other Clemson squads have reached the 11-victory plateau, the last coming during the national championship campaign of 1981.
There will be no countrywide crown this season, but a win on the last night of 2012 could set the stage for a happy new year.
“As we look back at our team right now - 11 seniors and 11 juniors – we see a lot of freshmen and sophomores who’ve won 20 games the past two years,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “So the expectation really is to win, and win at a high level and win consistently.”
Last year it was West Virginia that made sure the Tigers’ record would be stuck on 10 wins. Monday it’s an LSU team that stands in the way - a squad that was just a handful of points from being unbeaten.
“We have an opportunity to be remembered as an elite football team, one of the teams that really, frankly, when playing their best can line up against anybody,” Bayou Bengal coach Les Miles said.
Much has been made of the physical style of play of the traditional SEC power, but Swinney is quick to point out that his Tigers don’t exactly play two-hand touch.
“People get caught up in you have to get into an ‘I’ formation to be physical, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Swinney said. “It’s like saying you can only run the option if you’re a triple option team or something. We have elements of everything in our offense and we pride ourselves on being physical.”
A stingy defense hasn’t been a hallmark of the Palmetto State-based Tigers but they have plenty of hard-hitters that defensive coordinator Brent Venables believes can put Clemson in a position to win.
“(LSU) is going to make some plays, they’re going to pop a run, our offense is going make some plays, defense is going to make some plays and you have to keep playing ball,” Venables said. “Sixty minutes, a lot will take place over that course of time, and that tough mindset we’ve been trying to preach to our guys, that mentality, will keep us from not playing on our heels.”
Defensively the linebacker tandem of Jonathan Willard and Spencer Shuey set the pace, each with 88 total tackles. Willard, who has 60 solo tackles, also has 9.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
“LSU is a very physical team with big backs and big guys up front,” said defensive end Malliciah Goodman. “You just have to prepare to be physical with them for four quarters. That’s the thing coach Swinney has talked about that we just haven to have the mentality that it’s going to be a four quarter physical battle.”
The Tigers average a robust 42.3 points per game while holding the opposition to 24.9 points per outing.
“There's going to be a time that at some point our guys are going to have to go make plays,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “But as a coach, a coordinator, you have to put your players in a position to be successful and when you do that, you've done your job and we feel really good about the plan that we have.”
The passing game generates 319.6 yards per contest while the ground game nets 198.8.
Tajh Boyd – and future NFL player who may or may not be playing his last game in a Clemson uniform – has thrown for 3,550 yards and 34 touchdowns this season with 13 picks.
He has also rushed for 492 yards, second only to Andre Ellington’s 1,031 yards for the season.
“Each week is a new opportunity to just go and present yourself as being one of the most explosive offenses in the country,” Boyd said. “That's what we pride ourselves on. That's what when coach Morris came in, he wanted to establish.
“We had a saying that for 80-plus plays in the game, we were the most explosive offense in the country. We are starting to become that.”
Boyd’s favorite target has been DeAndre Hopkins, who has caught 69 balls for 1,214 yards and 16 scores. Sammy Watkins has netted 708 yards on 57 catches.
“They have an explosive group of core receivers,” LSU safety Eric Reid said. “And they have a great quarterback who has the ability to put the ball where they can catch it.
“It’s a challenge to our secondary and defense as a whole to stay in tight coverage.”
The game is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN.
It will mark Clemson’s second trip to the Georgia Dome this season and it will be the first of two consecutive games the Tigers play against a Southeastern Conference foe.
Swinney’s bunch opens the 2013 season against Georgia on Aug. 31.
He’d like to enter that game with a winning streak against SEC competition.
“In the span of 12 months, starting this past August, we’ll have played Auburn, South Carolina, now LSU and then Georgia to open up next season,” Swinney said. “So we might as well be in the SEC. Heck, that's a pretty full schedule right there. But we're excited about having that opportunity. And if you want to be the best, you want to put yourself in those situations to play the teams that are considered the best.”