CLEMSON, S.C. -- At halftime of Clemson's spring game, as he presented last year's seniors with their national championship rings, Dabo Swinney made some not-so-veiled references to his team's place in the college football pecking order.
"All year, they talked about 'Best team ever,'" the coach said. "They weren't talking about Clemson."
And yet, here were the Tigers, getting their rings a few months after dominating Alabama in the national championship game. It was a "mic drop moment," Swinney said, as he literally did just that at midfield.
But if upstaging Alabama on the biggest stage meant something for last year's team, Swinney said he's not interested in pushing to top the Tide on another front.
Alabama is the only team to repeat as national champ in nearly a quarter-century, but Swinney said winning a second straight championship isn't his priority for 2019.
"That's not even in our conversation, and I mean that," Swinney said. "I just want us to be the best version of this team. That's how I evaluate every team. ... It's different dynamics. Our goals don't change, and there's nothing up there that says win the national championship."
Clemson figures to be the odds-on favorite to win another national title this season, but Swinney points to the departures of so many of last year's veterans who got their rings Saturday as a reason 2019 could be far different from 2018.
"Last year's team, the cake was baked. We just had to ice it, cut it and enjoy it," Swinney said. "This team, the ingredients are there, but we're just heating the oven up."
On offense, quarterback Trevor Lawrence returns, along with a huge contingent of skill-position talent, but Swinney pointed to the defensive line -- where as many as five of last year's regulars could be selected in this month's NFL draft and four new starters will take over in the fall -- as a dramatic shift in personality and experience.
"That's a great intangible for this team," he said. "We have a lot of hunger. There's a lot of guys with something to prove."
Among those who've clearly proven something on the field already are Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross. They led the Tigers' title game win in January as true freshmen and still have at least two more years on campus at Clemson.
Ross suggested to Bleacher Report earlier this month that the revival of the XFL, which won't require three years of college football before players are eligible, could entice some players to depart early to nab a paycheck as a professional.
Ross did not indicate that would be the case for any of Clemson's stars, but Swinney, who has been a vocal critic of the possibility that college players should be paid, said he likes the idea of an XFL payday for some players.
"I love the fact that there's other options for people," Swinney said. "If people don't want to go to college and they don't value that experience, they want to go to work, I love that there's an option for them. No hard feelings from me."
As for the players he's got on Clemson's roster now, Swinney said they've set the bar high for 2019. He's just not planning on putting winning another ring as the ultimate goal for the season.
"Our players dream big. That's great," Swinney said. "Last year's team, they had big goals. But it's my job to create a daily focus, and if I see that, I'll live with any result we get. Not everybody's going to win a national championship."