There are very few places in America where a 10-3 college football season results in a bit of disappointment for the fan base. But when that occurs at one of the nation's true power programs, most consider it a one-off situation and expect the team to get back to its championship-contending ways in the next season.
Such is the case at Clemson. Though the Tigers were out of the national title chase early on and weren't even part of this past season’s New Year's Six experience, the expectation is that Clemson will be Clemson again in 2022. Here are three of the many reasons why this should be the case.
1. The defensive front seven should be as good as it gets
Injuries hampered this group in 2021, but the Tigers still finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense and were No. 2 in scoring defense. James Skalski and Baylon Specter have moved on, but the most disruptive player on the second level was Trenton Simpson and he returns along with some young, talented linebackers. And they will be aided by what may be the best defensive line in America. Xavier Thomas and Myles Murphy will cause problems coming off of the edges, Tyler Davis is a force on the interior, and perhaps the most talented member of the group, Bryan Bresee, will be back after missing all but four games with a torn ACL.
On top of what Clemson will trot out there for the first snap of each game, the depth will be outstanding. Ruke Orhorhoro, Justin Macoll, and K.J. Henry have been key contributors during their time in college and they will be valuable reserves in 2022. At linebacker, Tyler Venables, LeVonta Bentley, and Keith Maguire are currently projected as backups and the trio have combined for 111 tackles in their careers. Defense always starts up front and that is an area where Clemson is loaded.
2. The offense will be better
In reality, it can’t get much worse. In 2021, Clemson finished 99th in total offense and 82nd in scoring offense, numbers that aren’t good enough to win an ACC championship, let alone a national title. But there is some good news when you dig into the numbers a little bit. As the season progressed, the Tigers improved. In the first seven games, Clemson scored more than 21 points just once and that was against FCS member South Carolina State. In the final five regular-season games, they put 30 points on the board each time. The Cheez-it Bowl against Iowa State was a step back, but the offense did show some life late in the year.
Significant development is expected when a player enters his sophomore season and with Will Shipley, Beaux Collins, and Dacari Collins, Clemson has skill-position talent that could be elite. The key to discernible strides being made in 2022 starts with quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and ends with the offensive line. Uiagalelei was slated to be an all-conference contender going into last season and the ability is there. It was on display against Boston College and Notre Dame in 2020. Those types of performances have to become the norm in 2022. And an offensive line that was not sensational last season will feature veteran players that have been through the wars. If those two areas improve – and they should – many of the offensive maladies will be erased.
Brent Venables is off to Oklahoma and Tony Elliott is in Charlottesville, meaning Clemson will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball. But this is Dabo Swinney's team and his vision is shared by all. Brandon Streeter on offense and both Wes Goodwin and Mickey Conn on defense know the system very well. They have worked with Swinney, Venables, and Elliott in developing game plans in the past. While they have never been asked to call plays on Saturdays, they are aware of what the head coach wants to run.
And the fact that Swinney knows the path to success is what is most important. To have these changes with a less established head coach is one thing. But the new coordinators are being led by one of the best leaders on the collegiate level and they will field a group of players that have competed in and won a lot of big games. There may be some bumps along the way, but the Swinney culture will lead to a lot more victories.
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– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.