CLEMSON -- Ask Clemson coach Tommy Bowden and he'd much rather start with a lesser opponent to gauge his team's readiness.
Ask Clemson's players, and there's no better opener for the No. 9 Tigers than 24th-ranked Alabama at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
"I think everybody's saying, 'Oh, they don't deserve to be in the top 10. They always find a way to lose a game,'" running back C.J. Spiller said. "We've just got to go out there and prove them wrong."
There's no better way, the Tigers say, than defeating the Crimson Tide.
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Clemson has a history of gagging on outsized expectations. In 2006, the team opened 7-1 and reached the top 10 before losing four of its final five.
A year ago, the Tigers' ended a 4-0 start with consecutive losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. When they rebounded with four straight victories to reach a showdown with Boston College for a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, the Tigers stumbled again in a 20-17 loss to the Eagles.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at the last couple of years and see three or four plays that kept us" from the Bowl Championship Series, receivers coach Dabo Swinney said.
Swinney said the near misses are a lot like when you can smell fresh-baked cookies in your kitchen, but can't find where they are.
"Everybody wants a cookie," Swinney said.
Clemson has most of its impact players back from a year ago, led by quarterback Cullen Harper and running backs James Davis and Spiller. The Tigers landed in the preseason top 10 for the first time since 1991 -- the year of their last ACC crown.
Anticipation for success is rampant. And the Tigers can get things started right with a win over Alabama, defensive back Chris Chancellor said.
"We don't want any cupcake team to open up," he said. "We need to know where we stand right now. Our goal is to win the national championship."
Bowden appreciates his team's confidence. He's got some worries about their ability, though. Despite all the skill players back, the Tigers will start just one offensive lineman who started the regular-season finale against South Carolina.
Clemson is also without its top four linebackers from a season ago.
The Tigers survived a pressure-cooker first game a year ago, beating nationally ranked Florida State 24-18 on a Labor Day night showcase.
When the Alabama opportunity came up, Bowden weighed the exposure and opportunity for his program against the potential for a flat performance.
And whatever the outcome in Atlanta, Bowden said his biggest job may come next week. A victory would raise Clemson's profile immeasurably, while a defeat would reinforce the perception that the Tigers and their coach can't win the big ones.
Bowden wants his team to keep calm either way. The Alabama game has no effect on the ACC race.
"Monday's meeting with the team will be awfully important, one way or another," Bowden said.
There's no doubt which way Clemson's players hope it turns out. There are few bigger chances to mark themselves as legitimate college football contenders.
"Everybody's aware of what's at stake," Harper said. "We want to put Clemson on the map."