Dabo Swinney wants his Tigers to grow up to be just like LSU.
Tough and physical.
Always in the conference and national championship picture. A program that recruits at the highest level, almost never loses to inferior competition, and then competes on even footing with the best of the best, winning its share.
And most of all, consistent - both at the bottom line and in its process of preparing to win.
Clemson isn't there yet. But the Tigers have their foot in the door. They've been a BCS player for the past two seasons; they've won 10 games in back-to-back campaigns; and they're performing at a consistently high level both on and off the field.
There is little doubt the Tigers' program is 'getting there.'
But now it's time for Clemson to treat itself to a breakthrough.
Tonight, the Tigers need to do what Danny Ford's Tigers did more than two decades ago, when they wrestled bowl victories away from Penn State and Oklahoma, telling the nation - and themselves - that there was a new kid in town ready to move into college football's penthouse floor.
Chad Morris' offense, explosive and dynamic the past two seasons against pedestrian defenses, now needs to torch a team like LSU.
Tajh Boyd, after rewriting the Clemson record books, needs to play like the first-team All-American that he is - in a big-time setting against an elite opponent.
Ditto for Sammy Watkins, Nuk Hopkins and Andre Ellington.
Clemson's defense needs to hold its own, and contribute to the effort with some timely three-and-outs.
The Tigers need to be too strong-willed to let anything like what happened a year ago in Miami happen again.
There is little doubt, at this point, that what really stands between the Tigers and elite, LSU-like status is defense.
For all the fireworks and bells-and-whistles that have resulted in a string of entertaining, high-scoring free-for-alls over the past several seasons, it is still the teams with dominant defenses that rule the roost.
In fact, the bottom line says that if a team's defense is good enough, almost any kind of a competent offense will get the job done.
Swinney didn't go into the smash-mouth spread business as a gimmick or a shortcut. It's the offense he believes in, that he envisioned for Clemson even before he became a head coach.
He has a vision for defense, as well. And it looks a lot like LSU.
In a tell-tale analysis piece written during the run-up to the game, the Charleston Post & Courier's Travis Sawchik took a deep look into the comparative recruiting classes of Clemson and LSU over the past five seasons. He found that Les Miles has devoted significantly more recruiting resources to the defensive line than has Clemson - both in numbers and in signing four and five-star prospects.
LSU's focus on the defensive line not only shows up at the top-end, with numerous All-Americans and high NFL draft picks, it allows the SEC Tigers to play tag-team football with a group of 10 or more defensive linemen, with little drop-off between first-teams and second-teamers, and even third-teamers.
Clemson needs to take its best shot against LSU this time around.
It's time for the scoreboard to reflect the effort.
But as the Tigers look ahead, and recruit ahead for their long-term future as a national challenger, the most important thing that happens in the next two months may well be the results of Clemson's effort to nail down the signings of the nation's No. 1 defensive tackle, Dooly County, Ga.'s Montravius Adams, and the nation's No. 1 defensive end and overall prospect, Loganville, Ga.'s Robert Nkemdiche.
Adams announced last week that he'll take one of his four official visits to Clemson, while allocated others to Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Nkemdiche, who was 'committed' to Clemson for months before involving himself in serious flirtation with Ole Miss, may, in the end, come down to a Clemson-Alabama-LSU decision.
Clemson's world, these days, is an SEC world. That's who the Tigers have to beat for Adams and Nkemdiche; that's who they need to beat on New Year's Eve. And that's who they need to beat in their 2013 season opener at home against Georgia.