ATLANTA — Will Merritt has heard some Clemson folks attempt to "water down" the meaning of tonight's opener against No. 24 Alabama.

This game will have zero bearing on whether the No. 9 Tigers accomplish their ultimate and unmistakable goal of bringing home the school's first ACC title since 1991.

So, the theory goes, tonight's clash isn't as big or relevant to the Tigers as conference games against, say, Wake Forest and Florida State.

Right?

Merritt, the color analyst for Clemson's radio broadcasts and a former Clemson offensive lineman, doesn't want to hear it.

"If you say this game is not big, then you obviously have not followed this program very much," he said Friday.

Entering the season in the top 10 for the first time in 17 years, and considered the runaway favorite to win the ACC, Clemson approaches this game with a chance to gain validation from the nation, from its conference — heck, even from its own fans.

"If you ever want to be considered a contender instead of a pretender, then you've got to win these ballgames," Merritt said. "If you beat them and show you're a legitimate type of ball club, then everybody recognizes that."

Clemson has been recognized for flameouts on the big stage in recent years. Everyone knows about last year's home loss to Boston College, which scored 17 fourth-quarter points and beat the Tigers on their home field to deny them a trip to the ACC title game.

In 2006, the Tigers sparked a national Clemson lovefest when they spanked Georgia Tech on national television to improve to 7-1. They were ranked No. 10 and seemed destined to win the ACC before they dropped four of their final games and finished 8-5.

A seemingly corner-turning nine-win season in 2003 was followed by a 6-5 record a year later.

Last year, an overtime loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl denied Clemson its first 10-win season since 1990.

This year, anything short of 10 wins would be considered a disappointment.

"The objective in this profession is to win championships and win a national championship, and I've done neither," said 10th-year coach Tommy Bowden. "I'll always face the question of, 'He's always close; he's the nice guy that comes in second.' You always face that until you change the facts. And the facts are as they are."

Successfully handling high preseason hopes hasn't been the Tigers' forte under Bowden. In four of his previous nine years, they entered a season ranked (2006, 2004, 2001, 2000). They finished in the Top 25 one of those years (No. 16 in 2000).

A victory tonight could facilitate a strong start and keep the Tigers in the national conversation. Their next four games, all at home, are against The Citadel, North Carolina State, South Carolina State and Maryland.

ABC's Brent Musberger, who'll handle play-by-play for tonight's ACC-SEC showdown, has already picked Clemson to land in the BCS title game. The Tigers haven't sniffed the national title since they won it in 1981.

Senior quarterback Cullen Harper, an Atlanta native, said he knows what the reaction will be if the Tigers don't leave the Georgia Dome with a victory: Same old Clemson.

"Everybody in the country is going to be watching and looking to us to kind of see if we are for real," he said. "And I think it's important that we go out and make that statement."

The Tigers won't exactly close up shop if they fall to the Crimson Tide. Bowden can draw on his experience from 2003, when his team suffered a humiliating 30-0 home defeat to Georgia in the opener.

The Tigers ended up winning nine games that season, including whippings of No. 3 Florida State and No. 6 Tennessee.

"It's a 12-game schedule, and whether you play good or play bad you have to keep that in perspective," Bowden said.

Still, as Merritt says, there's no diminishing the importance of what will unfold tonight.

"I've talked to a lot of the coaches this week," he said. "Let me tell you something: They all know how important this game is. They know if they can win this ballgame, it could be a catalyst for a fantastic football season."

Reach Larry Williams at lwilliams@postandcourier.com and check out the new Clemson blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/tiger_tracks/