The Clemson Tigers have arguably their best all-around team in recent memory and they carry the preseason expectations that go along with it. We’ve seen this storyline before, Clemson carries a high preseason ranking into the season only to not live up to the billing. However, this season can be different for head coach Dabo Swinney and his Tigers.
They enter the season as the odds-on favorite to win the ACC, they have a Heisman trophy candidate and they are a darkhorse national title contender. With that said, they will still have to prove that they can, for once, live up to the hype.
Clemson’s biggest recruiting win last season wasn’t from a high school commit, rather it was quarterback Tajh Boyd‘s decision to return for his senior season. Boyd opting to return immediately cemented Clemson’s status as a legitimate national contender. Last season as a junior Boyd took a major step forward throwing for over 3,800 yards, including an ACC record 36 touchdown passes, and emerged as one of the best signal-callers in the country. He still has to work on his decision making at times but if he can play as consistent and mistake-free as he did last season then Clemson should be in the conversation by year’s end.
Roderick McDowell will be the guy to replace 1,000 yard rusher Andre Ellington and he’s more than capable of filling the majority of the productivity void. Clemson averaged almost 200 yards rushing per game in 2012 but look for that number to fall off just a bit this season.
Boyd lost his best receiving target when DeAndre Hopkins left early for the NFL but Sammy Watkins is still around and he has too much potential to have another down year like he did in 2012. A suspension and injuries hampered his progression after a breakout freshman campaign but he’s primed to regain that form now as a junior. The guys that will help Watkins fill the void left by Hopkins will be juniors Adam Humphries, Charone Peake and Martavius Bryant.
One of the biggest reasons that Clemson had such a productive offense last season was due to their strong play upfront on the offensive line. That should be a strength once again this season as they have four returning starters. They did lose their top lineman in center Dalton Freeman but the returning veterans should help projected starter Ryan Norton with his progression in 2013.
The key to whether or not Clemson has a legitimate shot at a national title depends on the improvement of their defense. In 2012 the defense made steady progress as they year went along, eventually finishing third in the ACC in scoring defense and capping off the season by holding LSU to just 219 yards of total offense in their Chick-fil-A Bowl victory. What’s even more encouraging is that the Tigers defense projects to be even better this season.
On the defensive line they return three starters and add a sack-threat in defensive end Vic Beasley. The heart of the line should be their strength as Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams form an imposing trio for opposing offensive lines to deal with.
Despite losing their top linebacker from last year in Jonathan Willard the linebacker rotation should be much-improved. Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony headline the returning starters while they will be flanked by senior Quandon Christian. Every single year the linebacking unit has improved and there is no reason for that trend not to continue this season.
The biggest question mark on the defense, and perhaps the entire team, is the secondary. Last year the unit was dreadful, partly due to injuries and younger guys getting thrown into action before they were ready. The silver lining was safety Travis Blanks, a freshman All-American last year, who is a star in the making and is the best player in the entire unit. Blanks will be flanked by Darius Robinson, Gary Peters Jr., and Robert Smith to round out the secondary. This unit doesn’t really have anywhere to go but up so expect improvement this season.
If the Tigers are truly national title contenders they will get a chance to prove that right out of the gates. A home opener against a fellow top-10 team in Georgia should go a long way in deciding whether Clemson is ready to take that next step. Other than the difficult opener the schedule is rather forgiving with the only other true threat in the ACC Atlantic division, Florida State, making the trip to Death Valley in late October. Their conference road games seem rather easy with contests at NC State, Syracuse, Maryland and Virginia. However, if Clemson can somehow get through the schedule unscathed it will set up a monumental road showdown with in-state rival South Carolina, a team that has gotten the best of them the last four years.
Is this finally the year that Clemson lives up to expectations?