The 2011 Clemson Tigers came out of nowhere to win the ACC last year but ended the season on a very sour note. This offseason has been up and down for the Clemson faithful with head coach Dabo Swinney getting a three year extension but all everything Sammy Watkins was arrested for marijuana possession. No one knows what the suspension will be or when it will come down. After losing to West Virginia 70-33, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was fired and replaced by Oklahoma's Brent Venables. Venables is considered to be one of the best defensive coordinators in the nation and will be switching the Clemson 3-4 to a 4-3. The expectations are high in Death Valley and the pressure is building on Dabo to continually make Clemson a contender in the ACC.
Clemson's offense was ranked 26th in total offense, 59th in rushing, and 21st in passing. The offense returns 7 starters including all three wide receivers, two offensive lineman, running back Andre Ellington, and quarterback Tajh Boyd. Tajh Boyd started out strong for the Tigers having a great run until the Georgia Tech game. Boyd had a great year statistically by throwing for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns as well as running for 218 yards and 5 touchdowns. Boyd ended up throwing 9 interceptions in the final 6 games after only throwing 3 through the first 8. His dual threat status tended to make him a passer only through the last few games and may have caused him to wear down towards the end of the season. If Boyd can get his accuracy back to where it was the first 8 games, he will lead one of the best offenses in the nation. The starting three receivers at Clemson are Sammy Watkins, Jaron Brown, and DeAndre Hopkins. These individuals return to form the the second best receiving corps in the nation. Watkins had 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns as well as running for 231 yards. Brown had 31 receptions for 406 yards and 4 touchdowns and Hopkins had 72 receptions for 928 yards and 5 touchdowns. Look for Watkins to continue to put up huge numbers and have a serious shot at a Heisman campaign if the suspension isn't too severe for his arrest. Andre Ellington returns for his senior year after having a great 2011. Ellington ran for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. He was able to capitalize on many misdirection plays with the defense concerned about Sammy Watkins. Look for him to put forth another yeoman like effort this year and be a dark horse Heisman contender. The offensive line returns two starters in left guard turned left tackle Brandon Thomas and center Dalton Freeman. Junior Tyler Shatley will start at right guard while sophomore Kalon Davis will be the left guard. Sophomore Gifford Timothy will be the starting right tackle. If these three new starters can continue to protect Boyd, this offense will be explosive.
The one side of the ball that Clemson struggled with mightily down the stretch was their defense. The Tigers finished ranked 71st in total defense, 83rd in rushing defense, and 50th in passing defense. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be switching the Tigers to a 4-3 scheme and will look to make the Tigers a force to be reckoned with. The Tigers return 7 starters including all three linebackers. The biggest loss for Clemson will be defensive end Andre Branch who had 78 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks. Malliciah Goodman will need to improve upon his 55 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks if Clemson is to have success on the defensive line. Goodman is the only returning starter for the defensive line who break in sophomore Grady Jarret at nose guard, sophomore DeShawn Williams at defensive tackle, and sophomore defensive end Corey Crawford. At lot of the focus will be on Goodman early until these new three prove themselves. The linebacking corps is solid with three returning starters. Sophomore Tony Stewart will start at the sam, sophomore Stephone Anthony will start at the mike, and senior Corico Hawkins will start at the will. These three combined for 126 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and only 2 sacks. Look for Venables to step up the blitzes with these three and their numbers to vastly improve from last season. The secondary returns three starters with sophomore Bashaud Breeland at corner, senior Rashard Hall at strong safety, and senior Xavier Brewer at free safety. Rashard Hall led the team in tackles last year with 81. Breeland led the team in passes broken up with 11 and was second on the team with 2 interceptions. This secondary will have to make more plays if they are going to make this defense an elite one in the ACC.
Clemson has a legitimate shot at repeating as ACC Champions. They will get there if they can overcome a big non-conference hurdle in Auburn to start the season in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff. After Auburn, they play two cupcake games against Ball State and Furman before getting their biggest test of the year by heading to FSU. After FSU, they go to Boston College and then are home for Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech has been a perpetual thorn in the side for Dabo and he must get over that hump. After a bye, Clemson hosts Virginia Tech who will want to avenge their only two regular season losses from last year. Back to back road trips to Wake Forest and Duke follow Virginia Tech before the Tigers come home for three straight games starting against Maryland. N.C. State follows their homecoming game against the Terrapins before the Tigers host archival South Carolina. South Carolina will be going for 4 straight victories over the Tigers which hasn't happened since 1951-1954. Clemson has a lot of talent on the offensive side returning but a lot of question marks on the defense. I really feel that their offense can save them for the first few games as they feel out their defensive responsibilities. I like Clemson to go 10-2 this year with their only two losses coming to FSU and Georgia Tech. That would put Clemson second in the Atlantic Division. Will that be enough to satisfy a rabid Clemson fanbase? I don't know.