Team: Clemson Tigers
W-L: 11-2 (7-1)
Postseason: 25-24 Chick-fil-a Bowl win over LSU
Top Offensive Performer: Tajh Boyd, QB
Top Defensive Performer: Jonathan Willard, LB
As a program, Clemson took a big, undeniable step forward in 2012. They beat an elite SEC opponent on a national stage, won 11 games for the first time since 1981, and even effectively put an end to “Clemson-ing.” Unlike their usual hiccup(s), the Tigers ran through a subpar group of ACC opponents this year, winning by an average margin of nearly 24 points against conference teams not named Florida State. And speaking of the Clemson offense, it’s impossible to get through a paragraph about the Tigers without discussing their record-setting high-flying attack led by QB Tajh Boyd and coordinator Chad Morris. Clemson finished sixth in the country in scoring average this season, putting up 41 points per game (one of just eight teams in the FBS to average 40 or more). Boyd, who had a stellar 2011 in his first full year as a starter, truly bloomed as a junior this season. While he didn’t get the Heisman trophy hype he well deserved, the passer showed marked improvement year-over-year, boosting his accuracy (up 7.5 percent) and touchdown passes (three more, in one less game), and managed to boost his running ability as well. With the help of some offseason conditioning, Boyd ran for nearly 300 more yards than he did in 2011, and tallied 10 scores on the ground, too.
And all of this — all the accolades and record-breaking performances — were somehow accomplished without star receiver Sammy Watkins operating at 100-percent (I’d argue he wasn’t even at 50-percent for most of the year). Following an offseason run-in with the law, Watkins was suspended for the first two games, and then missed a third with the flu. He was also a non-factor in the Chick-fil-a Bowl after an injury knocked him out for the game. Instead, it was DeAndre Hopkins that burst onto the scene, to the tune of 82 catches, 1,405 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. Frighteningly, for the ACC’s defenses, two of this offenses’ stars are back next season.
On defense, admittedly, this is still a work in progress. But that was to be expected as the team transitioned to the tougher style of defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Compared to last season, the Tigers allowed nearly five fewer points per game (29.3 versus 24.8), and even held six different opponents to 20 points or less (happened just four times last year). Of course, there’s still plenty of issues in terms of passing defense (240 yards per game and 23 touchdowns allowed are certainly nothing to brag about), but there’s been distinct and noticeable progress from last January’s Orange Bowl disaster — yes, that’s the last we’ll mention of it. Another surprise in the new defense — probably most of all — was the group’s improvement in terms of rushing the passer. Bringing in a young batch of linemen to replace NFL departures like Andre Branch, Clemson actually improved its sack numbers (from 24 last year, to 34 this year). If that’s any indication of what Venables can do over the long-term, the Tigers may be scaring the hell out of the ACC on both sides of the ball for the foreseeable future.
So is this the proverbial “corner” that Clemson’s been trying to turn since the Danny Ford days? Perhaps. If there’s one thing Dabo Swinney’s done at the helm for the Tigers, is restore a fire in the program that has its players and fans believe they’re title contenders. It’ll truly be put to the test next year, as Clemson’s likely to start the season in the top five or seven spots in both the coach’s and media polls. Tajh Boyd’s back. Sammy Watkins is back. They retained Chad Morris, the mad scientist to this high-flying offense, for at least the 2013 season (and don’t expect him to stick around once Boyd leaves — he’s arguably the most in-demand assistant in the country). In another “down year” for the ACC when it comes to top teams, the only thing that might stand in Clemson’s way en route to a national title shot are book-ended SEC foes. Neither Georgia nor South Carolina are slouches, but Swinney’s legacy will likely be defined by whether or not he can figure out how to finally get past Carolina, title shot or not.
Previously: Boston College