Dabo Swinney has raised expectations at Clemson, and last year's 14 wins in 2015 were the most in program history for a single season. However, the Tigers enter 2016 with unfinished business. Clemson fell just short in the national title game against Alabama, and the Tigers are hoping for another run to the championship in 2016. The pieces are certainly in place for Swinney’s team to win it all. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads a dynamic offense, with the receiving corps and offensive line among the best in the nation. For the second year in a row, coordinator Brent Venables has work to do in rebuilding the defense. However, considering Venables’ success in rebuilding this group last season, there shouldn’t be too much of a drop in production. The Oct. 29 showdown at Florida State should decide the ACC Atlantic.
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Previewing Clemson’s Offense
Following offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ departure to become SMU’s head coach, Clemson’s offense didn’t miss a beat under the watch of co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. The Tigers averaged 38.5 points per game and finished as national runner-up to Alabama. The scary part? They could be even better this season. Clemson returns eight offensive starters, led by junior quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson, an elusive, dynamic run-pass threat with a big arm, finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting and became the first FBS player ever to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. He’s the key to Clemson’s national title hopes.
The Tigers scored a major offseason victory when tailback Wayne Gallman returned for his junior season. Gallman is a powerful, violent runner who emerged as a star last fall, rushing for 1,527 yards with 13 scores as one of the ACC’s best backs. A strong offensive line, led by sophomore tackle Mitch Hyatt, will open plenty of holes for him.
Watson will throw to a deep receiving corps that will be even better with the return of Mike Williams, who had 1,030 yards as a sophomore but redshirted after suffering a broken bone in his neck in Clemson’s opener. He’ll be a perfect complement to speedy junior Artavis Scott.
Previewing Clemson’s Defense
A year ago, Brent Venables lost nine starters from the nation’s No. 1 defense and forged a unit that still finished No. 10 nationally. Following a major round of NFL Draft departures — led by defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and cornerback Mackensie Alexander — repeating that production would be a feat. Senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and emerging star Christian Wilkins will hold down the middle, and freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, will make an impact. Untested defensive ends Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin must prove they’re ready for front-line action.
Senior Ben Boulware is Clemson’s leading returning tackler with 82. He is a fiery, intense competitor who’ll be the heart of the Tigers’ linebacker corps and the defense as a whole. Coaches love middle linebacker Kendall Joseph’s potential.
Beyond All-ACC-caliber senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, there are serious questions in the secondary, a group that gave up multiple big plays in 2015. Mark Fields and Ryan Carter are candidates to start across from Tankersley, and both must make the leap from trusted reserve to starter. The departures of starting safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green to the NFL hurt. Senior Jadar Johnson will get a chance to shine in a starting safety role, but this group overall could give Venables some heartburn this fall.
Previewing Clemson’s Specialists
Greg Huegel came up huge to begin 2015 after being thrown into the fire following senior Ammon Lakip’s DUI and cocaine possession-related suspension. The freshman made 27-of-32 field goals, including 21-of-22 from 40 yards and in. Punter Andy Teasdall was up-and-down but landed 23 punts inside the opponent’s 20 and averaged 39.5 yards per kick. Scott has major potential as a speedy kick returner.
Coming off its best season since 1981, Clemson has shaken labels like “soft” and “not clutch” that were remnants of the Tommy Bowden era. The Tigers are tough, deep and talented, and with Watson leading a potent offense, they have the ingredients to make sure 2015 wasn’t a fluke. Can Venables mold another inexperienced defense into a winning unit? If so, this group will challenge for another ACC title and College Football Playoff berth. The biggest concern is a trip to Florida State on Oct. 29, but Watson and a potent offense could be good enough to overcome a less talented defense.