CHARLOTTE - Dabo Swinney has built Clemson into an every-year power with regular College Football Playoff appearances and a recent national championship. None of that could've happened without first asserting unquestioned control of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Tigers open practice this week as the overwhelming favorite to become the first team to win four straight ACC titles since Florida State's romp through the 1990s. They also could become only the second power-conference team to win four straight league championship games.
"I didn't sit back and say, 'Well we're Clemson and we're going to go out there and everybody's going to try to catch us,'" Swinney said during the ACC Kickoff preseason media days. "But I definitely envisioned Clemson being one of the best programs in the country, and I envisioned this league growing and becoming one of the most dominant leagues in the country."
Indeed, the Tigers' rise helped the ACC climb onto level footing with its touted Southeastern Conference neighbor.
It wasn't long ago that Clemson was chasing Florida State in the ACC's power-heavy Atlantic Division . The Seminoles won three straight ACC titles from 2012-14 while going 26-1 against league teams - 3-0 against Clemson - and winning a national championship in the final BCS season of 2013. But the Tigers followed that with their own impressive run, giving the league a sustained stretch of top-flight success while putting the ACC alongside the SEC as the only leagues to reach all four playoffs.
Clemson is 25-2 against ACC teams in the past three seasons, with 18 wins by double-digit margins. The losses at home against Pittsburgh in 2016 and at Syracuse last year came by a combined four points. And last year's 38-3 rout of then-No. 7 Miami made Clemson only the fifth team to win at least three straight power-conference championship games since the SEC held the first in 1992, a group featuring FSU, Alabama in the SEC (2014-16) and Oklahoma in the Big 12 (2006-08).
Another December crown in Charlotte would allow Clemson to join Steve Spurrier's Florida teams in the SEC (1993-96) as the only power-conference schools to win four straight league title games.
"It all goes together: their budgets are elite, their facilities are elite and they're able to recruit and attract the elite players," said Boston College coach Steve Addazio, whose Eagles face the Tigers annually in the Atlantic. "So they're a 'Have' - that's the best way I can say it."
Clemson is on the verge of the ACC's longest reign since Bobby Bowden's Seminoles arrived in 1992 and won at least a share of the title for nine straight seasons, going 70-2 in the nine-team league.
John Swofford got a close look at those Seminoles, first as a competitor as North Carolina's athletics director before becoming ACC commissioner in 1997. He told The Associated Press that Clemson's run "does compare favorably" because today's 14-team league "is considerably better."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with a league having a dominant team when that dominant team is without question a premier team nationally," Swofford said. "And that's exactly what we have in Clemson."
Yet offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt and defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell dismissed questions about a gap between Clemson and everyone else.
"I wouldn't say that," Ferrell said. "You can talk about that as far as the past years, it might be a big gap. ... This 2018 team hasn't done anything. There's not really a gap as far as what we've done."
Besides, Hyatt noted, there have been close calls. There was a hang-on-for-dear-life home win against Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in 2016. There were one-possession margins in ACC title games against North Carolina in 2015 and Virginia Tech in 2016. And North Carolina State played Clemson within a touchdown the past two years, including a 2016 overtime road loss after missing a short winning field goal at regulation's end.
"It's just executing in the final 2 minutes of the game," Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. "We missed a kick two years ago and had a couple of penalties (last year), and that's us, that's not them. So we've got to execute under pressure better - period."
But Doeren's observation underlines another way the Tigers are equipped to fend off challengers. There's a big-game-tested core from playoff routs of Oklahoma and Ohio State along with unforgettable title-game thrillers against Alabama, with the Crimson Tide winning in 2015 and the Tigers claiming the rematch before Alabama won Round 3 in last year's semifinals.
Swinney isn't changing his "you get what you earn" approach, either, even as the Tigers keep bringing trophies home to Death Valley.
"A big thing is Coach Swinney told us not to beat ourselves," Hyatt said. "We have the talent to win. We have the players, we have the coaches - we have everything we need to win."
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