By Eric Boynton Spartanburg Herald-Journal

CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson has long been a team on the rise, yet the Tigers still play the disrespect card at any opportunity.

But there’s one program the Tigers fully understand, getting the nod from not only oddsmakers, but many from the media and general public, as far as leaving the Tigers still looking up.

When the defending champions get a third consecutive crack at Alabama, the standard-bearer of college football over the past decade, in the Jan. 1 College Football Playoff semifinal, it could prove to be a symbolic passing of the torch and possible dawn of a new era.

“They’re definitely the standard and they’ve earned that,” Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph said. “For us it would just be another huge win. In some people’s opinions, it might put us above Alabama, but this isn’t the end game for where we want to be at the end of the season.”

Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins added, “We know they’re the model program, essentially. They’ve got a lot of respect and have done it for so long and other programs are working toward that, trying to be that, but they’ve definitely been the model since I’ve been watching college football.”

Alabama’s one of the oldest, most well-known brands dating back to the coach Bear Bryant glory days of the 1970s, when the Crimson Tide won at least 10 games nine times in a 10-year span. The program has been the best at times since Bryant’s departure following the 1982 season, but the arrival of coach Nick Saban in 2007 has taken it to unprecedented heights and consistency.

After going 7-6 in his debut, the 11-1 Tide has now reached double-digit wins for 10 straight seasons (averaging 12.3 per year) and won at least 11 in nine of those. They’d won all four trips to the national championship game under Saban, with the fourth coming against Clemson, before the Tigers won the rematch to earn last year’s crown.

Clemson (12-1) joins Alabama as the only program with at least 10 wins the past seven seasons and has won an average of 11.7 over that span. Ohio State is the lone other program close to matching those recent numbers with at least 10 wins in 12 of the past 13 years, but marred by a 6-7 mark in 2011.

But it’s the rubber match of a now three-game series between Alabama and Clemson that will help decide if the rapidly rising Tigers have become Alabama’s equal on the national stage: a team built to reload rather than rebuild in any given season despite the level of talent lost to graduation and/or the NFL.

“As of right now we’re the up-and-coming program that’s going to keep on building,” Clemson receiver Deon Cain said. “Alabama holds that title as the dominant team because of what they’ve done for the past years under Nick Saban, but at the end of the day I feel our respect level is starting to rise up and teams are going to respect us more.”

And although Clemson defeated Alabama last year, is the current No. 1 and the defending champs, many Tigers understand their standing in the eyes of many that they are still trying to catch the Crimson Tide.

“We’re still the underdog,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “We still understand a lot of people feel like Alabama is going to win, which is fine because they deserve to be here. They’ve got the crown. They’ve got the belt. And if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”