CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Clemson had a landmark season and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney feels his team has closed the gap on the game's elite programs - and that they could go even further next season.
The Tigers (11-2), ranked 11th in the final poll, finished with their most victories since going 12-0 and winning the national championship in 1981. Swinney said Friday his players took a giant step forward with their last-second, 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.
Now that they have, Swinney believes Clemson ranks alongside the game's very best.
"It just does a lot for our football team knowing we don't take a back seat to anybody," the fifth-year coach said. "We can play and compete with anybody in the country."
That attitude already has expectations soaring around campus. Swinney laid the groundwork moments after Chandler Catanzaro's 37-yard field goal as time expired gave the Tigers their first bowl win in three years, demonstrating to a national audience that his has national title potential.
Swinney said he'll have just 10 seniors next fall, meaning the bulk of a program that's gone 21-6 the past two seasons will be coming into its prime.
"With that comes an expectation. With that comes a belief," Swinney said. "They understand the commitment that it takes. Those are positive things. That's the kind of culture you want to have.
"They're not hoping to win, they expect to win."
Not that it will come easy.
On Thursday, Clemson's record-setting receiver DeAndre Hopkins gave up his senior season for the NFL draft. Hopkins had a school-record 1,405 yards on 82 receptions including an Atlantic Coast Conference record 18 touchdown catches.
Swinney thought Hopkins, who received a second-round grade from NFL draft advisors, could've used another year in college to develop. Still, he said he supported Hopkins' choice to leave.
"I think it's going to be tough" for Hopkins to crack the first round of April's draft, Swinney said.
Coming back are two pieces some might not have expected in offensive coordinator Chad Morris and junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. Morris was linked to several head coaching openings and was interviewed by Texas Tech before AD Kirby Hocutt selected Kliff Kingsbury. Morris, the highest paid assistant in the game at $1.3 million last season, said he was happy to return to the Tigers.
Boyd, the ACC's player of the year, has thrown for 7,724 yards and 69 touchdowns the past two years and was leaning toward turning pro after the LSU victory. However, Boyd said he wasn't ready to leave with Clemson on the verge of even bigger things.
"There are things for us to go out there and accomplish," Boyd said.
That began, Swinney said, with a team meeting on Thursday. The typically ecstatic Swinney told his players the book was closed on 2012 and its achievements as everyone prepared to buckle down for next year.
Swinney expects another high-flying offense despite the departure of Hopkins and senior tailback Andre Ellington, who posted his second 1,000-yard season this past fall.
Sammy Watkins, an All-American as a freshman in 2010, will lead the receiving corps with backups like Charone Peake and redshirted freshman Genome Hopper looking for more playing time.
Clemson's backfield will feature Rod McDowell and D.J. Howard, who combined for 588 yards and seven touchdowns in backup roles.
The biggest questions will again come on defense, which struggled much of the season before having its best game against LSU. The Tigers, under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, allowed more than 396 yards and 24 points a game this year, although they forced eight three-and-outs against LSU in the bowl victory.
Two of Clemson's three biggest games next season - an expected top 10 season-opening matchup against Georgia and defending ACC champ Florida State - come at home where the Tigers have lost just once in 14 games the past two seasons.
Swinney likes what he sees down the road, yet understands there are plenty of hurdles to leap long before anyone can think championship.
"The big thing is are they going to have the same type of leadership and accountability," he said. "I know what the 2012 team did. It's well documented. But that's got nothing to do with this team."