ACC Football 2013 Season Preview: Clemson Tigers

Following a Big Postseason Win Over LSU, Expectations Are Sky-High at Clemson

Following a Big Postseason Win Over LSU, Expectations Are Sky-High at Clemson in 2013

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.

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ACC Football Positional Rankings 2013: Defensive Line

Senior James Gayle Leads the Hokies' Top-Ranked Defensive Line in 2013

Senior Defensive End James Gayle Leads the Hokies’ Top-Ranked Defensive Line in 2013

A little over 40 days from the start of the 2013 college football season! And it is indeed that time of year — when college football blogs like this one and so many others start churning out season preview materials. We’ll be holding off until August for the team-by-team season previews, but in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at each position on the field and evaluating ACC squads’ respective strengths and weaknesses.

This week, we’re on to the defensive lines (check out previous rankings of ACC quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line). For several teams that have been churning out elite defenders for years, this is simply another group of stud performers. For others, this is a sign of some serous rebuilding. The ACC has plenty of stars on the defensive line this season, but there’s also plenty of question marks too. We’ll get to both. though as you’d expect, the questions increase as we head further down the list.

Keep in mind that these are full unit rankings — not just one player — so just because one individual end or tackle is better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean the team’s entire crop of defensive linemen is (though it certainly does help). Also note: Louisville (as has been the case since November) is included here, despite playing in the American this season. Additionally, since these are completely subjective rankings, the difference between one number to the following one is almost entirely negligible. Still, disagree with any of these picks? Share your own selections below.

ACC Positional Rankings 2013: Defensive Line

1. Virginia Tech Hokies: Looking for experience? The Hokies have plenty, as they bring back all four starters from last season and are chock full of juniors and seniors on the depth chart. As a whole, Tech’s defense recorded 35 sacks last season (16th in the FBS), most of which is attributable to this group. With another year of playing together under their belt, the unit — led by senior defensive end James Gayle — could be in for a monster season as the motor that drives Virginia Tech’s success.

2. Clemson Tigers: You might be surprised to see Clemson here, but that only means you haven’t been paying attention. The young Tigers that watched the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle are all grown up and have become a pretty frightening foursome (34 sacks last year; 20th in the FBS). Yes, they did lose Malliciah Goodman and his seven sacks, but considering who’s replacing him at defensive end (Vic Beasley), there’s very little to worry about in terms of a drop-off in production. Expect Brent Venables’ men to be even more aggressive getting after the passer this season.

3. Florida State Seminoles: FSU replaces every starter from last year’s potent pass-rush, but all is not lost in Tallahassee. Last year’s deep group received plenty of reps as the line was ravaged by injury, so this still ends up being a pretty veteran defensive line. Tackles Timmy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister will anchor them from the tackle positions, but they’ll also rely on Mario Edwards to take a leap as a sophomore and become the threat he was projected to be as a recruit.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #49, Vic Beasley

Clemson’s Vic Beasley is #49 on Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Clemson’s Vic Beasley is #49 on Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

We’re now less than two months away from the start of the 2013 college football season, and that means preview countdowns! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus completely bulletproof — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 49, Vic Beasley, DE/Clemson (Last Season: NR)

Here’s a stat you may not have been aware of: Clemson’s defense recorded 34 sacks last season, tied for 20th in the country. So while pundits continued bringing up Orange Bowl embarrassments and a porous defense, the Tigers were actually improving immensely under new defensive coordinator Brent Venables. While it’s not the entire story, much of that was due to the more aggressive pass rush led by the departed Malliciah Goodman and returning junior Vic Beasley. Despite missing six of last year’s 13 games, Beasley still managed to record eight sacks. Now, so long as he’s healthy, he’s poised to see that number spike as he switches over to Goodman’s strongside position as the unquestioned leader of this defensive front.

A lot of that will depend on what type of size he brings into the fall, though. Previously, he was incredibly undersized at just 6’2″ and 225-230 pounds; his speed functioning as his main advantage over slower (yet much larger) offensive linemen. Now, already putting on 10 pounds in the offseason, he’s aiming to be at 250 pounds of muscle. Rather than just adding bulk, Beasley is maintaining a delicate balance between getting stronger and losing speed around the edge. If the speed start to go, he’ll lose his advantage due to size. If the size doesn’t increase, the speed won’t matter.

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ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Clemson Tigers

Is Former Backup Roderick McDowell Ready to Take Over for Clemson at RB?

Is Former Backup Roderick McDowell Ready to Take Over for Clemson at RB?

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: Clemson Tigers

Spring Practice Start Date: March 6

Spring Game Date: April 13

Following two-straight seasons of more than 10 wins, Clemson’s suddenly in the national spotlight and a real threat to win the ACC and the National Championship (and maybe even the Heisman trophy too). But even as they bring back a strong group of both players and coaches, there’s still plenty left to figure out heading in 2013 if they’re going to live up to the very lofty expectations attached to them.

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris has returned for another year with the Tigers, meaning and he couldn’t be stocked with a better weapon than quarterback Tajh Boyd. Around the senior, though, there’s questions at wide receiver and running back, along with a gaping hole at center, formerly filled by NFL-bound Dalton Freeman. The odds-on favorite to fill that center spot is currently Ryan Norton, though he could also be challenged by redshirt sophomore Jay Guillermo. At receiver, Sammy Watkins will be called upon to quickly regain the all-world stature he’d reached as a freshman in 2011, especially without an experienced safety net to remove the pressure this time around. With Watkins at the top spot on the depth chart, Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant will likely take some time this spring to gain a better rapport with Boyd and prove they can handle a larger role in Clemson’s dynamic passing game. The Tigers must also replace the departed Andre Ellington at running back, but can luckily plug his experienced backup, Roderick McDowell (450 yards, five TDs in 2012), right into the role.

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National Signing Day 2013: ACC Team Recruiting Rankings

Matthew Thomas and Florida State Are the Class of the ACC's 2013 Recruiting Classes

Matthew Thomas and Florida State Are the Class of the ACC’s 2013 Recruiting Classes

Earlier today, we covered the ACC‘s top 15 recruits from National Signing Day. Now, we take a closer look at each team’s haul and how it stacks up against their conferencemates (plus Louisville), while also highlighting each school’s top recruit. Once again, we’ll be using ESPN’s rankings for consistency’s sake. Please don’t take that as us putting too much stock in these (or any) numbers, however.

1. Florida State Seminoles (22 commitments, 12 in ESPN300): FSU underwent a bit of a crisis a few weeks back, losing offensive coordinator James Coley to rival Miami, and possibly a ton of their recruits in the process. And yet, the collateral damage didn’t turn out all that bad. The ‘Noles still pulled down a boatload of top recruits from all across the south (especially Florida), filling most needs on both sides of the ball. This team will be forced to reload a bit in 2013, and this class helps them do that — most notably at linebacker, with five commits at the position. Top Recruit: Matthew Thomas, OLB (No. 6 overall, Grade: 90)

2. Clemson Tigers (23 commitments, 10 in ESPN300): Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney continued his recruiting hot streak, scoring another strong class packed with athletic defenders as he and D-coordinator Brent Venables fix this squad’s biggest weakness. While he wasn’t the most heralded member of the star-studded class, New York DE Ebenezer Ogundeko could end up being the hidden gem here, though he’ll need to bulk up a bit for the college game. Top Recruit: Mackensie Alexander, CB (No. 4 overall, Grade: 91)

3. Virginia Tech Hokies (22 commitments, 4 in ESPN300): Tech took advantage of a strong 2013 class coming out of Virginia, nabbing 14 in-state recruits. Overall, the group appears heavy on defense, which stays in line with what Frank Beamer’s staff has done consistently over the past two decades. Granted, that won’t help the team’s current offensive woes, but given some defensive issues this past season, bolstering that side can’t be a bad thing. Top Recruit: Kendall Fuller, CB (No. 18 overall, Grade: 88)

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Clemson Tigers

Tajh Boyd Was Clemson's Star This Year, But He Wasn't the Only Elite Performer

Tajh Boyd Was Clemson’s Star This Year, But He Wasn’t the Only Elite Performer

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.

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Way-Too-Early 2013 ACC Football Power Rankings

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

When we last left our teams, there appeared to be hope on the horizon. Though the 2012 season was a difficult one, the bowls showed some real glimmers of great things to come, as the ACC racked up its first winning postseason record in seven years. Beyond some long-awaited hope for greater success, 2013 also brings some change to these rankings. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will now actually be participating in the conference, after two seasons appearing in the power rankings despite not doing so. And Louisville, our newest pals set to join in 2014, will also be joining the party — meaning 15 teams will be listed for the remainder of this calendar year (and slightly beyond into bowl season 2014). Cheer up! It’s less than 230 days ’till kickoff.

1. Clemson Tigers (Last Year: 2): Tajh Boyd‘s back, and the defense is improving steadily. So even without DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Ellington, this team will still be fine in 2013. In year two under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, expect an even more aggressive front-seven as the coach works on improving linebacker play in particular. That secondary will still get burned, but be certain they’ve also learned some lessons from last year, too.

2. Louisville Cardinals (LY: NR): After the show Teddy Bridgewater put on during the Sugar Bowl this year, the Cardinals are an extremely hot commodity, and are likely to start strong in their final season of Big East football. It’ll be interesting to see how coach Charlie Strong and his team respond to having a target on their backs from week one, when they’ll likely be handed a top-10 ranking to start the year.

3. Florida State Seminoles (LY: 1): They’re losing a lot on the defensive side of the football, along with QB and senior leader, EJ Manuel. But like those old, Bobby Bowden-coached teams of teams of the 90s, this ‘Noles squad has already reloaded. The offense may take a few to warm up, but the defense will still be very much their strength heading into next season.

4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (LY: 5): After sitting out two straight years of postseason berths, the ‘Canes are really hoping they’re given a break from the NCAA in terms of leniency. With a ton of young talent eager to get a shot at a conference title, and arguably the best QB/RB tandem in the ACC in Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson, Miami could very well be out for blood come opening kickoff this fall.

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