Since 2015, Clemson's script has been written in stone. Play the season, win the ACC, and compete in the College Football Playoff. With a preseason top-three ranking in every poll, 2021 wasn't supposed to be any different.
But it was. The offense struggled to find its footing, and for the first time since 2014, Clemson lost three regular-season games. Still, a Cheez-It Bowl win would give the Tigers their 11th straight 10-win season, meaning a few good things had to have happened in 2021.
Here's a look back on the season with awards for this year's Tigers.
Offensive MVP: Will Shipley, RB
Injuries hampered Shipley this fall and forced him to miss three games, and even then, his rushing yardage totals weren't jaw-dropping. But on this team, this year, Shipley was the most productive offensive player. His play over the finishing stretch of the season was very impressive, and his 10 touchdowns show that he has a nose for the end zone.
Defensive MVP: Myles Murphy, DE
Four Clemson players made the All-ACC first team. Even though Murphy did not, he was the most disruptive defender in orange for 2021. Despite missing three games, Murphy led the Tigers in both sacks and tackles for lost yardage. He was elected to the All-ACC second team and had more votes than any other defender on that list.
Best Freshman: Will Shipley, RB
If Shipley was offensive MVP, how can he not be the best freshman? It was clear last spring that the Weddington, North Carolina, product was going to see substantial playing time, and that began early on. In Game 2, Shipley had 80 yards and his role increased as the season developed.
Best Play of the Season: Shipley's jump-pass
Up 10-3 over Wake Forest midway through the second quarter, Clemson drove inside the Wake Forest five-yard line. D.J. Uiagalelei handed the ball off to Shipley, who did his best Tim Tebow impersonation by jumping up and throwing a touchdown pass to Davis Allen.
Best Performance (Player): Kobe Pace vs. Wake Forest
While Shipley was the lead back on most occasions, it was Pace's rushing against the Demon Deacons that stood out as the best performance of 2021. The sophomore ran for 191 yards on 24 carries that day and his second of two touchdowns gave Clemson an insurmountable 38-13 lead near the end of the third quarter.
Best Performance (Team): The win over Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons came into the game clinging to College Football Playoff aspirations and could have clinched the division title with a victory. Neither happened as Clemson got up 10-0 early and cruised to a 48-27 victory. The defense did surrender 406 yards, but it was the best showing of the year offensively in terms of yardage, and the 48 points were eclipsed only by the 49 versus FCS South Carolina State.
Defining Moment: The comeback wins over Florida State and Louisville
On Oct. 23, Clemson lost to Pittsburgh and fell to 4-3. There was talk that the bottom may fall out on the Clemson season, and it looked like that was indeed happening in the following game when Florida State took a 20-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter. But Clemson scored twice late to secure the victory, and the very next week versus Louisville, the Tigers again rallied to win in the fourth quarter. After that, this team took off. In their remaining three games, Clemson outscored UConn, Wake Forest, and South Carolina by a combined total of 122-34. The 2021 season could have been a true disaster without those two gut-check wins.
Biggest Surprise: The contributions of the true freshmen
Shipley's play was obvious, but other newcomers stepped up and a couple at unexpected positions. Coming into the season, significant playing time seemed highly unlikely for any freshman defensive back. But Lannden Zanders injured his shoulder in Week 1 and in stepped Andrew Mukuba. The true freshman finished fifth on the team with 52 tackles and also broke up nine passes. Wide receiver was another position with apparent depth, but Beaux Collins finished second on the team with 28 catches and his three touchdown receptions tied Justyn Ross for the most by a Tiger. With veteran Clemson receivers either injured or deciding to leave the program, look for more from Collins (along with classmates Dacari Collins and Troy Stellato) in the bowl game.
Biggest Disappointment: D.J. Uiagalelei
The offensive problems were not entirely his fault. But considering the amount of hype Uiagalelei had received coming into the season, he had to do more than a 55 percent completion rate with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. His decision-making appeared slow and his accuracy was an issue. Even as the team as a whole progressed at the end of the year, Uiagalelei's numbers did not. Taisun Phommachanh may not have been the answer going forward, but since he decided to leave, it is all on Uiagalelei in 2022.
Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: James Skalski, LB
The sixth-year senior has never been the most talented player on the team, but he has been the heart and soul of the defense for the past three seasons. Skalski made the All-ACC first team this season after leading the Tigers with 85 tackles. The Clemson defense will continue to have talented athletes, but finding a leader to replace Skalski will be vitally important.
Player to Watch In 2022: Jake Briningstool, TE
Briningstool was another true freshman who saw some action this fall and flashed enormous potential. He caught two long passes in the win over UConn, including the first touchdown reception of his career. Allen still has another year (or two) remaining, but Briningstool should be able to carve out meaningful minutes next season.
Offseason Storylines: Ch-ch-ch-changes
Several Clemson players have entered their names into the transfer portal, but it is the departure of the two coordinators that will be felt the most. With Brent Venables and Tony Elliott moving on to head coaching gigs, Dabo Swinney promoted from within, naming Wes Goodwin defensive coordinator and Brandon Streeter offensive coordinator. The system will probably remain the same but the voices will be different. It will be interesting to see how the team responds when spring practice commences.
– 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.