CLEMSON -- A subdued Dabo Swinney walked from a quieted Bobby Dodd Stadium early Sunday morning two weekends ago, following a loss at Georgia Tech. The normally exuberant Clemson coach was disappointed as a perfect season was blemished, an unlikely pursuit of a national title likely ended in Atlanta.
But Swinney was not overcome with despair as he walked from the concourse to the team bus.
Why? Perhaps it was because a window of opportunity is just opening for Clemson this season -- that is what Swinney believes and that is what the roster suggests.
No. 9 Clemson (8-1, 5-1 ACC) is in the top 10 of the BCS standings for the third time in program history with 42 of 85 scholarship players being freshmen -- a total including redshirt and true freshmen.
Another consensus top 10 recruiting class is on the way. Of the top 10 BCS teams, Clemson had the fewest seniors on its two-deep depth chart entering the season.
The young Tigers have the opportunity to clinch an ACC title game appearance with a win against Wake Forest on Saturday (noon, ESPNU).
"We're probably a little ahead of where I thought we'd be this year," Swinney said. "To see our quarterback play like he's played in his first year as a starter, to see some of these younger players like Sammy Watkins come in here and what they've done, those are things you can't really expect. But I'm excited about where we're going."
A peak season
Think out two years from now.
Think about 2013, when quarterback Tajh Boyd could be a redshirt senior. Though he's eligible for the NFL draft after this season, Boyd is not yet thought of as a potential early-round NFL prospect by analysts.
Think out two years from now.
Think about receiver Sammy Watkins as a junior. NFL draft analysts believe Watkins would be an early first-round pick if he were eligible for the draft after the season, but to Clemson's delight, he is not eligible until 2014.
The Post and Courier asked Watkins to think about what Clemson might look like in two years when the 42 freshmen on the roster this year -- players like five-star linebackers Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony, defensive end Corey Crawford, receiver Martavis Bryant and running back Mike Bellamy -- become juniors and redshirt sophomores.
"I think our whole team will be nasty," Watkins said. "Our whole team will be more mature, bigger, better, stronger. Everybody will understand the game more. They'll have a (purpose) when they take the field of just being a champion."
Of course, the Tigers will have to replace defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, a projected first-round pick after the season, and perhaps talented tight end Dwayne Allen, along with three starters from the offensive line. But Clemson has risen to ninth in the BCS standings despite returning the smallest percentage of lettermen among the top 10 BCS teams.
The Tigers, on paper, are two years from peaking.
"(In 2013) I think we'll be in a position where we have a bunch of talented juniors and seniors with the opportunity to develop guys the right way, and not play them before they're ready," Swinney said. "Look at the great programs out there. That's how it is."
Wave after wave
One great class is not enough for any program to reach elite status, and this holds true for prospect rankings from college football to pro football to major league baseball.
For example, Clemson's 2008 class was ranked No. 2 overall by ESPN, but the class itself was not able to elevate Clemson to elite standing.
To reach elite status, Clemson needs wave after wave of talent, "back to back to back" top-rated classes, Swinney said. That's what the top programs in the Southeast Conference have done in recent seasons.
"There's this perception out there that we've always recruited these great classes, and I don't know where that comes from," Swinney said. "We've signed a good class here and there, a great player here or there, but we've never, not since the 1980s, really built a program through recruiting."
"I think the last two classes have been very solid, and I think this last class was great," Swinney said.
The Clemson staff has now turned its focus to the 2013 class, which Swinney says has a chance to be "as good as we've signed."
Said Swinney: "As I've said many times, I don't need a lot of patience, just a little bit and we are going to get this program on solid footing where we can be a national contender and have a national presence every year."