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.