After the Mike Williams injury on the opening drive of the season, everything came together very nicely for Clemson in 2015. The line gelled and the holes that were open on defense were filled.
Orchestrating a repeat of last year's ACC title and national championship game appearance will present its own set of challenges. But the core of the offense returns led by that guy. The concerns rest elsewhere.
Can Clemson find its way back to the College Football Playoff? Here are three reasons why they will and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Will Make the CFB Playoff in 2016
1. They Have the Best Quarterback in the Country
The last three national titles have been won by first year starting quarterbacks. Also, half of the eight teams that have qualified for the playoffs have done so with new quarterbacks. So there is no guarantee that a returning starter can lead a team to the Promised Land. But it helps when you have Deshaun Watson coming back to play the game’s most important position. As great as he is, Watson now has the added benefit of knowing how to lead his team to the final game. This is a huge advantage for the Tigers.
2. The Rest of the Offense
Who is better? Athlon’s No. 1 ranked receiving group featuring Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow, Jordan Leggett, and a healthy Williams? Or Athlon’s top-ranked offensive line spearheaded by left tackle Mitch Hyatt, center Joe Guillermo, and guard Tyrone Crowder? The answer is both. Add in the hard running of Wayne Gallman along with Watson and you have the best offense in America.
Podcast: Official 2016 ACC Preview
3. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables
Last year, Clemson lost nine starters off a unit that was ranked No. 1 in total defense following the 2014 season. The skeptics predicted a drop in production. But the Tigers finished last season No. 10 in total defense thanks in large part to Venables. A longtime assistant under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Venables has perhaps done his best work with the Tigers.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Won’t Make the CFB Playoff in 2016
1. The Personnel Losses on Defense
Yes, Venables knows how to handle this situation as he did it masterfully last year. But it may be more difficult after a second year of losing star players. In 2015, Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson were talented defenders that had played a lot of football in their careers, though they weren't recognized as returning starters. The same was true of Travis Blanks, T.J. Green, and B.J. Goodson. All of those players that emerged for Clemson in their junior and senior seasons are gone and have to be replaced again. The talent on defense is not an issue, but it is young talent and the defense is not nearly as deep as it has been in the previous two seasons. As a result, Clemson must remain injury free on defense.
2. Special Teams
Obviously, the special teams played a key role in the loss to Alabama in the Championship Game. There was the Tide onside kick early in the fourth quarter with the score tied 24-24 and the Kenyon Drake kickoff return for a touchdown giving Alabama a two score lead just two minutes later. But the coverage units were a problem long before the title game. Clemson allowed two other touchdown returns on kickoffs, more than any other team except Louisiana Tech, who also gave up three. Punt coverage was better but the punting of Andy Teasdale must improve.
3. The Big Game is in Tallahassee
There are many important contests for both Clemson and Florida State, but even now it’s hard not to think about October 29th. Clemson has a loaded offense and talent on defense. But so does Florida State. And the game is at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Seminoles’ home field has been a problem for the Tigers as Clemson has not won in Florida’s state capital since 2006 and have lost 11 of their last 12 games at FSU.
Offensively, all the pieces are in place. They have a Heisman caliber quarterback that is protected by a great line and can get the ball in the hands of electric playmakers. There is also plenty of athleticism on defense and though they are young, Brent Venables has a proven track record of building tough defenses. But I don’t think the ACC will get two teams in the Playoff and Clemson has to get over that Tallahassee hurdle. Florida State is stacked with talent as well and will be hungry to regain their place at the top of the ACC. Clemson has the quarterback. Florida State has the environment. I’ll take the home team.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 4
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: (11-1, 7-1 in the ACC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 10.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 10
— 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.