A lot has to happen in a championship season. Playing well on offense, defense, and special teams goes without saying, as does proper coaching. But an often-overlooked factor in projecting a national champion is the schedule.
A docket that features one powerhouse after another can be too tough for even the most talented teams to overcome. On the other hand, one that is loaded with cupcake after cupcake will fail to impress the College Football Playoff Committee. Somewhere in between is ideal.
In 2016, Clemson has a schedule that achieves that perfect balance. There is a stringent test right out of the gate for Dabo Swinney's team along with the annual battle for the Palmetto State to close the year. In between there are some sure wins that will allow for fine-tuning and other games that could prove to be a bit tricky. And there’s the trip to Tallahassee at the end of October.
Related: Clemson Tigers 2016 Preview and Prediction
From easiest to Florida State, here is how Clemson’s fall schedule stacks up.
12. Sept. 17 vs. South Carolina State
Quarterback Caleb York had a nice freshman season, leading the Bulldogs to a 6-4 record. But he has lost his top two receivers and his leading rusher. Plus, the chances of the FCS program slowing down the vaunted Clemson offense are slim and none.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Troy
The Trojans were 4-8 in 2015 and lose leading rusher Brandon Burks and leading receiver Teddy Ruben. They also must replace the 17 tackles for lost yardage and the 7.5 sacks accumulated by Tyler Roberts. Troy’s last winning record and bowl appearance was back in 2010 and the game in Death Valley will not help the Trojans get to bowl eligibility this fall.
10. Nov. 19 at Wake Forest
The Deacons return much of their offense, but it was a unit thanked ranked 120th nationally, averaging just 17.4 points per game. Checking in at No. 38 in the country, defense was one of the team’s strengths last season. However, Wake’s best defender, linebacker Brandon Chubb, is now a Los Angeles Ram.
9. Nov. 5 vs. Syracuse
New head coach Dino Babers inherits 15 starters and an emerging quarterback in Eric Dungey. The offense should improve under Babers’ tutelage though a defense that gave up 439 yards per game must be revamped. The Cuse should not be a major challenge for Clemson but the spot on the schedule – the week following Florida State – is a bit concerning.
8. Oct. 7 at Boston College
The Eagles of 2016 should look a lot like the Eagles of ‘15. Despite the departures of star linebacker Steven Daniels, nose tackle Connor Wujciak and safety Justin Simmons, Boston College will be stout on defense. Offense will still be a problem. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles is the likely quarterback and running back Jon Hilliman is expected to return from last season’s foot injury. But you won’t find many true playmakers on this offense.
7. Sept. 22 at Georgia Tech
No one has any idea what to expect from the Yellow Jackets this season. Head coach Paul Johnson will not stand for a repeat of last year’s 3-9 record and quarterback Justin Thomas will be motivated to prove that 2015 was a fluke. Plus, defending the option is always a challenge. But the truth is that Georgia Tech was a bad team last season. The Tigers have to go to Bobby Dodd Stadium on a Thursday night. But with South Carolina State the week before, the short week should not be an issue.
6. Nov. 26 vs. South Carolina
Who will be the Gamecocks' starting quarterback this season? Who will be the No. 1 receiver with Pharoh Cooper now in the NFL? How can linebacker Skai Moore’s season-ending injury be overcome? These are just three of many questions that face new head coach Will Muschamp. South Carolina should struggle this year and the only reason this game is ranked this highly is because of the rivalry’s passion.
5. Oct. 15 vs. NC State
The Wolfpack suffered substantial losses to their offense and see a few key components leave off the defense. But head coach Dave Doeren has a core group of rising juniors that spearheaded last year’s tough defense. Running back Matt Dayes will return this year after his season ended following a foot injury against Clemson on Halloween.
4. Nov 12 vs. Pittsburgh
Hopes are high in the Steel City now that star running back James Conner is cancer free. Even if he is not fully back to his ACC Player of the Year form of 2014, Conner and fellow 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison will churn up yardage behind a veteran offensive line led by All-American candidate Adam Bisnowaty. Defensive end Ejuan Price returns for a sixth year and sophomore defensive back Jordan Whitehead will be causing problems for the opposition on the other side of the ball.
3. Sept. 3 at Auburn
Jordan-Hare Stadium will be rocking for this Tiger vs. Tiger showdown in week one. Auburn will continue its quarterback competition into the fall but Gus Malzahn’s offense should have a solid running game featuring Jovon Robinson. Defensively, Carl Lawson at defensive end and Montravius Adams at defensive tackle are matchup problems for any team.
2. Oct. 1 vs. Louisville
After a slow start, Louisville ended 2015 with a flourish, culminated by a 27-21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Sixteen starters return and quarterback Lamar Jackson should be even better as a sophomore now that he has settled in as the starter. Though defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is now in the NFL, Louisville brings back the bulk of its 18th-ranked defense.
1. Oct. 29 at Florida State
Athlon Sports has both Florida State and Clemson in its top four, so the result of this game will affect not only the ACC Atlantic Division race, but also the quest for a Playoff spot. Like the Tigers, FSU will be loaded on offense. If Dalvin Cook stays healthy, there’s a good chance that he will join Deshaun Watson at the Heisman Trophy presentation in December. Defensively, Jalen Ramsey departs, but sophomore Derwin James is the next guy up to headline a very deep Seminoles defense.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.