Team: Clemson Tigers
2012 W-L: 11-2 (7-1)
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (40-21; sixth season)
Returning Starters: 13 (6 Offense, 7 Defense)
The Tigers are on a rocket ship ride over the last couple seasons. Following countless years of underachievement (“Clemson-ing”), it appears that Dabo Swinney has righted the ship for a program that’s always knocking on the door of college football’s elite, but can never quite get in. Clemson seemingly won the lottery with Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who have changed the culture in Death Valley to one of top-10 recruiting classes and dreams of national titles. They’ve at least tied for first in the Atlantic Division in three of the past four seasons, with one ACC title. They’ve also won 21 games in the past two, capped by an impressive victory over LSU in the Chick-fil-a Bowl on New Year’s Eve. So was that victory indicative of the future, or just a lucky blip?
Offensively, there are very few questions facing this group, and rightfully so. Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd is entering his third season as the starter and is enjoying all the Heisman hype to go with it. Despite what may be perceived as a “down year” by top wideout Sammy Watkins last season, he’s returning to regain his all-world freshman year form. And maybe most importantly, Morris is back for another go-around. Near the top of every head coaching search for two years now, this may be his last season in Clemson, but he appears determined to go out with a bang. The 2012 Tigers were one of the top 10 attacks in the country, averaging 41 points per game, to go along with a staggering 512.7 yards per. If they manage to replicate those types of figures (and I’m firmly convinced they will), he’ll be leading another program come fall 2014.
But to say this offense is perfect would be foolish. The rushing attack will depend on unproven running backs, none of whom will be able to match former starter Andre Ellington’s numbers right away. And while Watkins is one of the country’s best receivers, there’s still a lot of production to replace in the absence of now-Houston Texan DeAndre Hopkins. On the bright side, no one really knew how good Hopkins could be before 2012, so perhaps we’re about to witness the arrival of another breakout Clemson receiver this fall. Looking at the depth chart, Charone Peake‘s probably the best bet, as he’ll benefit from Watkins drawing double teams nearly ever Saturday. Also worth noting: Clemson returns four of five starters on the offensive line, and actually possesses a ton of depth there, too. With a pass-first attack, they’ll need to have a solid rotation ready to handle constant blitzing, though — something to keep an eye on as the year wears on.
Over on the defensive side of the ball, everyone uses this group as the main reason Clemson cannot compete for a national title. But that’s a stretch. Despite all the talk of a “terrible” secondary and continual mentions of the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle, they actually ranked 55th in defensive FEI last season — among the top half of the country. They only allowed 24.8 points per game, and if you watched the group from game one through the end, there was actually improvement, even among the beleaguered secondary. In year one under Brent Venables, From mid-October on, half of their opponents were held under 20 points, while just one (NC State) scored over 30. Despite losing defensive end Andre Branch, Venables got this group to be more aggressive in every way, even increasing sacks from 24 to 34 in one less game.
I won’t claim there aren’t issues, though. Against elite competition, the Tigers surely didn’t look as good as they did against the Dukes and Marylands of the world. Even Boston College — a team that looked to be in shambles for much of 2012 — still managed to put up 31 against them. The always problematic secondary still gave up its fair share of big plays, allowing 34 passing plays of 30 or more yards (second-most in the FBS) and even 10 plays of 50 or more (again, second). Three of those players are now gone, which in some ways is a good thing. And in others, there’s now an even greater pressure on the line to make up for their inexperience. How fast the defensive backs get up to speed will be the difference-maker in the opener and beyond.
Clemson has the makings of a national title contender, but they’ll be tested plenty. There are four big matchups — SEC bookends Georgia and South Carolina, plus Florida State and Georgia Tech during the season — that will likely define the Tigers’ season. Get the job done against all the ACC teams, you’ll be playing in the Orange Bowl at the very least. But that’s not the definition of success for this team anymore. They’ll need to be at least one of the SEC opponents to get a shot at the BCS Championship, which is the ultimate goal. I don’t think the LSU win was luck whatsoever, though it may have created Clemson’s toughest opponent of all: expectations. Most of all, the Tigers must spend the season combating expectations, and those are only set to grow with each and every victory. If they’re truly up to the task this year, they must win both the mental and physical game each and every week. Can they? I’m actually optimistic about it.
Prediction: (12-1) (8-0); ACC Champs, Orange Bowl
Previously: Boston College