CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's got a different message with his Tigers this year.
Think more of a "Bring it on," rather than "We've got work to do."
With experience, depth and some of the best newcomers in the game, three-time Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson seems the biggest lock in college football for a fourth consecutive trip to the final four. So much so that even Swinney can't deny it.
"I feel great about this team. I love this team," Swinney said. "Last year was such a fun, different challenge for us. But this team, we've got all the ingredients. I think we've got talent. We've got experience. We've got depth. We've got character. We've got good leadership. So we have, I think, all of the things that it takes."
The Tigers, who were 12-2 last year, are certainly experienced. Defensive linemen in Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant all passed up the NFL draft to play again in college. Throw in monster tackle Dexter Lawrence — who says he's completely healthy from a toe issue that slowed him at times last year — and the Tigers might have the most fearsome front four in college football.
Behind them are veteran linebackers Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar and dynamic safeties Tanner Muse and K'von Wallace.
The offense appears loaded, too. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt is back after considering the NFL to anchor the offensive line with veterans in center Justin Falcinelli and guard Sean Pollard. Sophomore Travis Etienne is bigger and faster in the backfield while Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice there to back him up.
Kelly Bryant entered summer as Clemson's No. 1 quarterback, although he's getting pushed from five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence, who broke the Georgia high school marks for passing yards and TDs held by former Clemson All-American Deshaun Watson.
One area of concern before the season opener with Furman on Sept. 1 is the receiving corps. While Clemson's group is packed with potential only national championship hero Hunter Renfrow has shown consistency.
But that's not nearly enough to dampen enthusiasm for a big, big things this year at Clemson.
"I think we've come a long way, really. We've become a close team at this point," Swinney said. "We're very pleased with the morale and the chemistry that I've seen already."
Some other things to watch with Clemson this season:
WATSON REDO: It took Clemson three games in 2014 to hand the reins to freshman Deshaun Watson when starter Cole Stoudt stumbled. Swinney and his staff might not wait so long if Bryant can't get the Tigers going quickly. Lawrence, the 6-foot-5 freshman, has a strong arm and looks to go downfield as much as Watson did during his three seasons with the Tigers.
MORE THAN FOUR: Clemson's defensive front is more than its four starters. The Tigers have recruited several top line prospects the past couple of years who are itching to make their mark as quickly as possible. Albert Huggins is a 305-pound senior who had five tackles for loss last year. Nyles Pinckney, Chris Register and Logan Rudolph (brother of Pittsburgh Steelers QB Mason Rudolph) could start for most other programs. And Clemson brought in freshmen Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry, both who were top 10 prospects at their positions.
DEEP RECEIVERS: The biggest difference with Clemson last year was its lack of a long-ball threat among receivers. Clemson coaches believe that will change this season as some of its more recent recruits mature. Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers are sophomores while freshman Justyn Ross was one of the top prospects in the country. Clemson is also hoping veterans who have not broken through yet like senior Trevion Thompson and juniors Diondre Overton and Cornell Powell get it going. Of course, there's old reliable Hunter Renfrow (he led Clemson with 60 receptions last year) back for a final season.
KEY GAMES: Clemson's toughest games this year might come from the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers go to Texas A&M on Sept. 8 in a season-setting game against long-time foe in former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, now with the Aggies. Clemson faces improving rival South Carolina to close the regular-season. The Gamecocks have lost four straight in the series and coach Will Muschamp is still stinging from their past two defeats by a combined 90-17 score.
SEASON OPENER: Clemson begins against in-state FCS rival Furman at home on Sept. 1. The Tigers have won 30 straight games against the Paladins.