Clemson heads into Chick-fil-A Bowl seeking new identity for a new year

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and the No. 14 Tigers face No. 9 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl today at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

ATLANTA — When the new year arrives, which should come just after the conclusion of the Chick-fil-A Bowl that kicks off at 7:30 p.m. today (ESPN), Clemson hopes there will be a new perception of its program. No. 14 Clemson (10-2) hopes it will be viewed as a team that belongs with the elite, the type of program that can contend for a national title in 2013.

Perception shapes reality in college football.

Perception impacts programs on the recruiting trail. Perception matters in the sport because the right to play for a national championship is determined by voters, and beginning in 2014, the sport’s four-team playoff will be determined by a selection committee.

Perception factors in before a season begins. Nine of the last 11 national champions were ranked in the top 10 of the preseason polls. It will be 10 of the last 12 if Alabama defeats Notre Dame in the BCS title game. If a team begins the year in the top 10, it can lose a game and still remain in the title hunt. If a team is ranked outside of the preseason top 10, it is placed at a disadvantage.

The perception is Clemson’s success has come in large part because it plays in an inferior conference. Clemson has not beaten a ranked team this season. Clemson is a six-point underdog against No. 9 LSU (10-2). Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is aware of the stigma.

“We are a top-15 team. If you are a top-10 team, you have to step up and win games like this at some point,” Swinney said. “We faced two top-10 teams this year (South Carolina and Florida State) and didn’t quite get it done.

“(A win) would be huge for us.”

Clemson’s offense is ranked ninth in the country in total yards, but there are those who doubt whether the hurry-up scheme can beat an elite defense after the Chad Morris-led unit fell to Florida State and South Carolina this year. They are teams that have elite defensive fronts similar to LSU’s.

CBSSports.com national college writer Bruce Feldman’s wrote a list of 10 key bowl questions earlier this month. Coming in at No. 8 was this question: “Can Clemson handle a big, bad SEC defense?”

The only two times Clemson has been limited to fewer than 37 points this season was against SEC opponents.

Bowl games are often dubbed by coaches, players and the public as “springboards” for next season.

Swinney said his team will live with Monday’s outcome for “the next eight months.”

But it is often the case that the result of a bowl game does correlate with the success or failure of the following season.

Still, this bowl might be really be a springboard.

The 63 freshmen and sophomores on the Clemson roster will become juniors and sophomores next year. Sammy Watkins should be motivated to perform near his 2011 output as he’ll be eligible for the NFL draft. Quarterback Tajh Boyd is expected back. Four starting offensive linemen return, and the defense has nowhere to go but up.

A win against one of the flagships of the mighty SEC would do wonders for the team’s confidence. It would help the perception of Clemson and the ACC, which went 1-5 against the SEC this season, and it would surely impact Clemson’s position in 2013 preseason polls.

Why do 2013 preseason polls matter? Because Boyd said Clemson has big dreams.

“Ultimately, this program is on the verge of something great,” Boyd said. “We are so close to being the team we really want to be. Ultimately, all the players, all the coaches come here for one reason and that’s to win a championship. We want a national championship. I think it’s possible. This is a big game for us in a lot of different ways.”

Follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter: @travis_sawchik.

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