The Clemson Tigers find themselves two victories shy of college football's summit, where a year ago they came within one final step before losing to Alabama in a scintillating national championship game.

The Clemson Tigers find themselves two victories shy of college football's summit, where a year ago they came within one final step before losing to Alabama in a scintillating national championship game.

Clemson is in rarified air under coach Dabo Swinney, who has led the No. 2 Tigers back to the College Football Playoff with a semifinal matchup against No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday.

Since the start of the 2014 season, only Alabama (39-3) and Ohio State (37-3) have had more victories than Clemson (36-5), which began its recent tear by beating the Buckeyes 40-35 in the Orange Bowl to cap the 2013 season.

These are the good old days for Clemson, a program that has enjoyed some grand success - including a national championship in 1981 under Danny Ford - but had enough periods of drought to be kept on the outside of the sport's upper crust.

"Certain teams have always had the opportunity to be good," Ford said. "Ohio State has been one of those teams forever and ever. Alabama. Southern Cal. Notre Dame, back in the old days. Michigan. Oklahoma. They were the seven or eight that were supposed to do it every year. Clemson was never there in that group. Now they've gotten there."

Swinney, who played at Alabama, took over Clemson halfway through the 2008 season after Tommy Bowden was fired and has produced six consecutive 10-win seasons. The Tigers are 68-13 since 2011, and they have won three Atlantic Coast Conference championships and four straight bowl games.

Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist each of the past two seasons for Clemson, has gone 30-3 for the best record in the nation among quarterbacks who have played the past three years.

This season, the Tigers (12-1) won a second consecutive ACC title for the first time in 28 years while becoming only the third team to win 12 games at the school since the football program began in 1896.

Such success has created a palpable fervor in Clemson, South Carolina - population 13,905, not counting the school's enrollment of nearly 23,000 - and throughout a state that has always been rabid for the Tigers (or rival South Carolina) because of the lack of a professional sports team.

"It has been very exciting," said George Bennett, 83, retired president of the Clemson booster club "IPTAY" – which stands for "I Pay Ten A Year" - that dates to the 1930s. "It has been kind of a magical time around here.

"We had good years back in the '80s and won a national championship. But in my opinion, this has been more magical. The excitement was nothing like it is now. It's kind of a whole new level."

Frank Howard went 165-118-12 at Clemson, won two Southern Conference championships and six ACC titles, and enjoyed six bowl victories while coaching the Tigers for 30 seasons beginning in 1940.

Ford's 12-0 season in '81 produced Clemson's only national title, the highlight of his 11 seasons, which included five ACC championships, a 96-29-4 mark, and a winning percentage in the 1980s exceeded by only four teams.

An NCAA scandal ended Ford's tenure after the '89 season, and the Tigers soon fell into mediocrity. They went 132-97 from 1992 through 2010 and never finished a season with double-figure wins in that span.

In 1998, the Tigers finished 3-8 but were so excited about beating rival South Carolina (1-10) in the season finale that the fans tore down the goal posts in celebration.

Clemson broke through under Swinney with a 10-4 record in 2011 and its first ACC championship in 20 years, and he promptly built on that season by cranking up the recruiting.

"Dabo is the real thing," Bennett said. "Dabo walks the talk. He's all that."

Now can Clemson take the final step and win its first national title in 35 years? Two wins are needed, not that the coach sees them as necessary to stamp the Tigers as a national powerhouse.

"I think our status as far as being an elite program is validated," Swinney said.

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones