ATLANTA — Dabo Swinney never lost his exuberance, even when plenty of Clemson fans questioned whether he was the right coach to lead their football program.
These days, he's feeling comfortable enough to show off his dance moves — at least for his players.
After the Tigers romped past North Carolina 59-38 last week to remain unbeaten, Swinney broke out some gyrations in the locker room that were part Cabbage Patch, part Running Man.
"He tries his best," said offensive lineman Brandon Thomas, shaking his head.
Swinney may need to work on his dancing, but at least no one is complaining about his coaching. The No. 6 Tigers (8-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are off to their best start since 2000 and climbing in the national championship race heading into Saturday's prime-time game against Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2).
"I love being 8-0. Heck, yeah," Swinney said. "It's great for our program and the Clemson brand. You turn on the TV and you've got the paw sitting there. But that doesn't have anything to do with beating Georgia Tech."
Few people expected Swinney to be in this position at the start of the season. The bigger question was how long he would last.
The 41-year-old coach faced heavy criticism after the Tigers struggled to a 6-7 mark in 2010, including a second straight loss to state rival South Carolina. A bowl loss left Swinney with a mediocre 19-15 record in 2½ seasons as head coach.
No one doubted his over-the-top enthusiasm for the job. Plenty wondered if he could actually coach, and the uproar grew louder when Clemson struggled to beat lower-division Wofford early this season.
But an impressive win over defending national champion Auburn seemed to turn things around, and the Tigers kept it going by knocking off ACC favorites Florida State and Virginia Tech. The last two weeks, their fast-break offense put up a total of 115 points on Maryland and North Carolina.
Clemson has been especially impressive in the second half, outscoring its opponents 175-77 with a unit led by three of the ACC's biggest stars: quarterback Tajh Boyd, freshman receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Andre Ellington.
"Every play is designed to score," Swinney said. "That's one of the reasons we are such a good second-half team. We wear down people."
Clemson's national title hopes got a big boost when both Oklahoma and Wisconsin lost. The Tigers moved up to fifth in the BCS rankings, though they'll still need some help to nudge their way into the top two.
BCS-leading LSU and No. 2 Alabama meet next week in Tuscaloosa, so at least one of the Southeastern Conference powerhouses is assured of a loss. Then comes Oklahoma State, which must get through a brutal finishing stretch that includes Big 12 foes Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Boise State is just ahead of Clemson, but a weak schedule the rest of the way could hurt the Broncos' chances of holding off the Tigers if both teams keep winning.
Swinney insists his team isn't concerned about anyone else.
"We talk to our guys every week about the next step. The next challenge. Forgetting the past," the coach said. "Reload. Refocus. You get caught up in all this other stuff, you'll fall quickly."
Just ask Georgia Tech, which got off to its best start since 1966 and climbed to No. 12 in The Associated Press rankings — only to lose the last two weeks at Virginia and Miami.
The Yellow Jackets are still a factor in the jumbled Coastal Division race, but the remaining schedule is tough (No. 15 Virginia Tech and No. 22 Georgia are still to come) and they can't afford another ACC loss.
"Obviously, we've had a tough stretch," running back Roddy Jones said. "But we still have a lot in front of us. We still have a chance to have a great season."
Georgia Tech's triple-option offense has bogged down after a blistering start — no one more so than quarterback Tevin Washington.
He's carried the ball a staggering 78 times the last three games, playing into the hands of defenses that would rather deal with him than one of the big-play threats such as A-back Orwin Smith. Also, the quarterback has struggled on those rare times when he drops back to throw, completing just 14 of his last 39 passes, with four interceptions and no touchdowns.
Making matters worse, Washington will have to operate this week without his best lineman, center Jay Finch, who's been ruled out of the game with a leg injury.
"I'm trying to stay poised, making sure I'm doing everything I can do to put us in position to win games," Washington said. "I think it's more self-inflicted than anything. If everybody is taking care of their responsibility and doing their part, everything will work itself out."
Clemson may have to go without Ellington, who is bothered by a sprained left ankle. He definitely won't start — D.J. Howard gets the nod — and Swinney will wait until game time to decide if his top back is available.
But even without Ellington, the Tigers have plenty of weapons. Boyd has thrown for 24 touchdowns and an average of nearly 300 yards per game. Watkins is the ACC's top receiver with 54 catches and nine touchdowns. If teams focus coverage toward his side, Boyd can look to sophomore DeAndre Hopkins, coming off a career-best 157 yards against North Carolina.
For Swinney, there are plenty of goals to take care of before the Tigers can start pondering their national chances.
"I know there's a lot of talk," he said. "But we've got a division championship, a state championship and an ACC championship. We have all of that before we can even talk about the BCS. Our guys understand that."
At least Swinney isn't getting grilled each week about his future.
Now, about those dance moves.
"What happens in the locker room," Swinney said, "stays in the locker room."