Clemson’s quest to the top begins Saturday vs. Wofford

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney entering 2015: "My goal is by 2020 to look back and say, we just had the best decade in Clemson football history. We’re halfway into that.” (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

CLEMSON — At the ACC Kickoff four years ago in Pinehurst, N.C., 71 media voters took their shot at picking the eventual 2011 ACC football champion. Two chose Clemson — correctly.

At the ACC Kickoff six weeks ago in Pinehurst, 158 media voters took a stab at the 2015 ACC champ. More than half — 84 — took the Tigers.

Clemson, ranked No. 12 in the current Associated Press preseason poll and unranked in 2011 until week 3, is fixing to win the ACC for the first time in a full college student cycle. That mission begins in a couple weeks, but the Tigers’ big-picture journey — 15 wins in 2015, which adds up to a national title, is Dabo Swinney’s stated goal — starts Saturday afternoon vs. Wofford at Memorial Stadium.

Only eight players on the current roster were on that 2011 title team, and seven redshirted. The only one who played, wide receiver Charone Peake, can speak for the difference in Clemson’s culture from then to now.

“That group in 2011 wasn’t really in the position that we are,” Peake said. “We’ve really dealt with some big games, and we won those big games, and we’re used to the winning position, finishing in the top 10.”

Clemson did not win the ACC the past three years — Florida State did all three years, and defeated Clemson all three midseason meetings — but all seven of the Tigers’ losses in that span have been to teams ending up ranked in the final AP top 10.

Now Clemson starts just outside the top 10, picked to win the ACC, a trendy dark horse to crash the College Football Playoff grid as one of only three teams favored to win every one of its games (No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 TCU are the others.)

How can the program once known for stumbling in the face of great expectations — but illustrating impeccable consistency for three straight years while systematically lopping off the sport’s bluebloods in bowl season — fend off the doubters and fulfill those expectations?

“You’ve got to go out week to week and prove it,” said offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, whose first year on staff was 2011. “You can’t take any days off, because now, there’s a bulls-eye on your back, so everybody’s gunning for you. You have to have your best because you’re going to get everybody’s best.”

“(It takes) a team that actually believes they can do it,” said senior offensive tackle Joe Gore, one of those seven 2011 redshirts still around. “It doesn’t matter how talented the team is; it’s your heart.”

The 2011 and 2015 teams are similar in that freshmen ate up nearly half the roster; the ’11 Tigers had 42 first- or second-year rookies, and this roster has 40.

The two teams are dissimilar in that Clemson claimed its 14th ACC championship with four brand-new assistants — Elliott, offensive coordinator Chad Morris, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell and defensive ends coach Marion Hobby — and were coming off a few underperforming years, including a 6-7 mark in 2010.

“Not taking anything away from the leaders back then,” Gore said, “but the leadership now, we’ve handled success and we’ve handled defeats. We can lead the right way.”

In 2011, “there were a lot of walls around this program, and we’ve just been knocking them down one at a time,” said Swinney, who took over midway through 2008. “My message to the team that year was, alright, we did some good things, but let’s put our head down and let’s go have three, four, five, 10-plus good seasons.

“We’ve become relevant. Are we elite? We haven’t proved that yet. My goal is by 2020 to look back and say, we just had the best decade in Clemson football history. We’re halfway into that.”