MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - The oranges haven't even yet been delivered to fill Clemson's shiny new addition to the trophy case (a glass bowl), but preparations for next year have already begun.
The good news for the Tigers is not that many seniors are departing. However, their massive junior class is getting depleted by the day with defections to the NFL. And what the leaving players lack in quantity they make up for in quality.
Clemson's bidding adieu to some all-timers in quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, plus core starters in running back Roderick McDowell, offensive linemen Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley, receiver Martavis Bryant, cornerback Bashaud Breeland, linebacker Spencer Shuey and kicker Chandler Catanzaro.
More than anything else, recent track record gives Clemson hope for the new year, ranking in the top 15 of the final AP poll for the second straight year.
An Orange Bowl triumph over Ohio State, which fell one win short of a national championship berth, gives the Tigers another victory over a perennial powerhouse. Coaches and players branded it a program-defining game, and they capitalized.
"Absolutely, absolutely," junior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. "Going against Ohio State, one of the most recognized programs in the whole country, it's a great win against great players."
Georgia, LSU and Auburn have also fallen to Clemson in the past 16 months, plus Florida State and Virginia Tech the year before. Returning seniors in 2014 have six victories over top 12 teams on their resume.
"This is a huge boost for our confidence right now, and it's going to carry on into the offseason," sophomore center Ryan Norton said. "People know how to work, people know how to get here. It's going up from here, that's all I can really say."
The five-game losing streak to South Carolina rightfully sticks to Clemson like a perpetual zit that won't disappear. But this addendum is interesting: the past three years, the Tigers have won their next game following a Gamecocks loss. The list includes the 2011 ACC Championship, the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl and the 2014 Orange Bowl.
"Yeah, that just shows when something happens, you've got to put it in the past," junior safety Robert Smith said. "Everything for the last five years, playing South Carolina, hasn't gone the way we want.
"But after the game, you've got to put that away, you've got to go to the next game. That shows the integrity of this team and what we're really working towards."
There's this, too: since third-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris and second-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables have worked together under head coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson is 10-0 when it has more than a week to prepare.
That includes season openers against No. 25 (in the coaches poll) Auburn and No. 5 Georgia, and bowl upsets as underdogs against No. 9 LSU and No. 7 Ohio State. The Tigers also are 6-0 coming out of a bye week or Thursday night game 10 days prior.
"I think it says a lot about our team, the leaders we have in the program, not listening to naysayers," Venables said. "When we play well together, make timely plays, you have a chance to win games.
"But that criticism (from South Carolina losses) is deserved," Venables added. "You lose, that's what happens. You can't run from it and hide from it. You've got to face it head on, and try to learn from it and grow from it, become tough from it, and respond. We're good, talented and tough."
Even the seniors who won't be around next year have high expectations.
"Hopefully national championship. I mean, hopefully guys can take it there," said Thomas, a 2012 all-ACC left tackle. "I'd be happy if they did. I would love to come back and actually go to a national championship and watch those guys play as an alum now. I look for the guys to step in there and win the games now."
The BCS era is over, ushering in the College Football Playoff where a committee will determine the four teams playing for a national title.
While the official principles maintain only that season's results shall dictate the selection process, it certainly doesn't hurt for any team to prove its mettle in recent years when given a shot at the big matchups.
"Yeah, it's going to help us," Jarrett said. "We know getting to the big prize, getting to the national championship, is our ultimate goal, even with the loss of some key players.
"So we feel like we're going to get there. We've just got to get to work this offseason."
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