Team: Clemson Tigers
2011 W-L: 10-4 (6-2)
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (29-19; four seasons)
Returning Starters: 14 (7 Offense, 7 Defense)
Clemson enjoyed a banner season in 2011, clinching the ACC for the first time in 20 years and playing in their first Orange Bowl since 1981, they’d announced their resurgence on the national scene. Or at least they would have…
Despite their obvious and numerous accomplishments last year, the one glaring thing the Clemson Tigers will be remembered for is being annihilated by the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl, 70-33. It’s unfortunate, sure, but moments like this can also spark a change, and in this case, they did almost immediately. Within a week of the drubbing, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was out, and in came long-time Oklahoma defensive guru Brent Venables. He vowed to change things, and erase that game from everyone’s memory. While there are far too many memes to let us ever do that (West Virginia just scored again, guys), a new coordinator was probably the best remedy for a group whom tackling was not a specialty.
While the defense was in shambles last season, though, the offense was one of the most efficient in all of college football. Under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, the team averaged 78 offensive snaps per game; good for 14th in the country. They were 24th in scoring (33.6 points per game) and 25th in total yardage (439 per game), yet only held the ball for a little over 28 minutes per contest. The frantic pace (and Morris has already hinted it’s getting even faster this year) was an enormous part of Clemson stunning Auburn, Virginia Tech and Florida State early in the season. Plus, it also allowed them to take full advantage of their sudden three-headed monster of elite players on that side of the ball.
Prior to 2011, QB Tajh Boyd had only taken 63 snaps in relief duty and was nothing more than a serviceable passer. But yet, the then-sophomore finished the year as the most successful Tigers quarterback in two decades, accounting for more total offense than anyone else in the ACC. Not acting alone of course, he also had the luxury of throwing to one of the nation’s best freshmen in receiver Sammy Watkins. Even missing a game last year, the electrifying player was the engine that drove the high-powered Clemson attack, leading the conference in all-purpose yards. Now a known commodity, he’s pegged to be among the best WRs in all of college football.
Last, but not least, is the guy who benefits from the success of both of the former. Running back Andre Ellington, who’s back for an unexpected senior season, will once again provide the change of pace that keeps defenses guessing. A reliable option as both a runner and pass-catcher, Ellington’s presence as a senior not only provides statistical excellence, but leadership and guidance for his younger, superstar teammates as well. For the Tigers’ offense to really shine in 2012, it’ll be because Ellington kept the running game humming.
On defense, while Venables has his work cut out for him, there were some positives last season as well. As a team, Clemson forced 23 turnovers last year, along with 24 sacks, and held the Hokies to a grand total of 13 points over two meetings (both wins). With DE Andre Branch coming off the end, the had a serviceable pass rush that consistently attacked teams with trouble along the offensive line (lookin’ at you, FSU). Nonetheless, letting up 29.3 points per game, regularly forgetting how to tackle and getting embarrassed on national television will make people forget all of that pretty quickly. For Venables’s message to resonate with the full defensive unit, he’s got to get buy-in from veterans like linebacker Corico Hawkins first and foremost. Through spring, it appears that’s the case, but it’s still a process and this wreck won’t get fixed overnight.
Once again, Clemson’s schedule gives them no breaks, with two SEC schools (South Carolina, Auburn) in the non-conference slate, along with a trip to Tallahassee. At the same time, they’ll finish with three straight at home, and see Georgia Tech, NC State and VPI all in the confines of Memorial Stadium. As discussed, the offense will be up for any challenge and should be able to keep them in games on their own. However, if the Tigers want to contend with an improved Atlantic Division and try to defend their conference crown, you’ll have to see a fundamental improvement on the defensive side of the ball that may just be past their capabilities in just one offeseason.
Prediction: (10-2) (7-1); Chick-fil-a Bowl in Atlanta
Previously: Boston College