Hopes were high for Clemson entering the 2015 college football season. The Tigers had an emerging quarterback with tons of skill position help and some talented young athletes on defense.
But the expectations for last season are nothing compared to what Clemson is facing going into its Sept. 3 opener at Auburn. After their runner-up finish in January, Deshaun Watson is now the Heisman Trophy front-runner and practically the entire offense returns with him. There is plenty of skill on defense, but several key components need to be replaced.
Can Clemson again put itself in position for another trip to the College Football Playoff and a second crack at a national title? Here is how a panel of Athlon Sports writers and contributors see the Tigers’ 2016 season playing out.
Clemson Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
Clemson probably fields the best offensive team in the nation. A case could be made that the Tigers have the top offensive line, best receiver group, and the No. 1 quarterback in America. Throw in Wayne Gallman leading a deep running back contingent and you have a unit that will be extremely difficult to stop.
Despite losing a large chunk of the defense for the second year in a row, coordinator Brent Venables knows how to rebuild. Plus, players like Christian Wilkins, Ben Boulware and Cordrea Tankersley will make sure that the Tigers’ defense doesn’t fall too far.
The schedule is very manageable. But Florida State is loaded as well and that game is in Tallahassee, where the Tigers have gone 1-11 in their last 12 trips. I believe that Clemson falls at FSU again and finishes the regular season 11-1.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Everything is in place for Clemson to make another run at the national championship. Of course, making it through a season unscathed with injuries or an upset loss is never easy. On paper, the Tigers should be favored in 11 games. Outside of the road trip to Florida State, there’s not a matchup that looks problematic for coach Dabo Swinney’s team.
Here’s a scary thought for the rest of the ACC: Clemson’s offense averaged 38.5 points a game last fall and could be even better in 2016. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is the frontrunner to win the Heisman and is surrounded by one of the nation’s top offensive lines and receiving corps. However, the big question mark surrounding this team resides with the defense. How quickly will coordinator Brent Venables retool a defense that suffered big losses in the front seven for the second year in a row?
Expect the matchup against the Seminoles to decide the Atlantic Division winner. And even if the Tigers fall short in that game, an 11-1 record would still give this team a chance to make the playoff.
Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer)
If you call Deshaun Watson the best quarterback in college football, you probably won't find an argument from any coach or player – certainly not after what he did between the lines during the national title game. I'm not sure 2016 will be quite as magical as that run last year was but there's no reason to think that a repeat CFP trip is out of the cards because of Watson's ability to take over games. He's got even better talent around him on offense and the group might be more explosive this season. You have to be a tad concerned the defense has to rebuild so much (again), and injuries can always crop up, but this is essentially a one-game season (at Florida State) for the Tigers and they always have a chance with No. 4 behind center.
Kevin McGuire (KevinOnCFB)
The defending ACC champions may have the best player in the conference with quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the best team belongs elsewhere in the ACC Atlantic Division. Clemson will start the year on the right foot, however, by picking up a nice road win in SEC country against Auburn and should light up the scoreboard in the following weeks against Troy and South Carolina State. ACC play should go mostly well, but a home game against Louisville could result in a slight scare. The season really comes down to the road game at Florida State, where I have the 'Noles coming out on top. After that, Clemson will roll through the rest of their schedule and very likely be back in the New Year’s Six lineup somewhere.
Mike Ferguson (@MikeWFerguson)
Had it not been for a pair of special teams miscues in the fourth quarter against Alabama, Dabo Swinney's team might hold the title of reigning national champions heading into 2016. The good news is the Tigers have the talent to hold that title heading into 2017.
Offensively, Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Deshaun Watson is surrounded by playmakers with Wayne Gallman joining him in the backfield along with Artavis Scott and Mike Williams out wide. Williams was lost early last season to a neck injury. Up front, center Jay Guillermo may be the best in the country at his position.
The Tigers also are talented on defense with Carlos Watkins manning the middle of the defensive front with Ben Boulware at linebacker and Cordrea Tankersley at cornerback. If there is a concern on defense, it's getting to the passer as the Tigers are having to replace ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd.
The game to circle on the schedule is the Oct. 29 matchup at Florida State. The winner of that contest has gone on to win the ACC Atlantic in each of the last seven years and this this year’s meeting is being viewed by some as a national quarterfinal. Going to Doak Campbell Stadium, where FSU has won 21 straight including four in a row over the Tigers, won't be easy; but if Clemson can get out of there alive, it should be the favorite in every other game. Visiting Georgia Tech on a short week could be a bit tricky and Louisville also has played the Tigers tough in each of the last two seasons, but this one is in Death Valley.