ACC Countdown: No. 2 Clemson

With last season's Orange Bowl victory, coach Dabo Swinney and his Clemson Tigers became the first team from the state of South Carolina to win a BCS bowl.

Dabo Swinney has built Clemson back up into a national power. But the Tigers lost a lot of their core from last season, and they’re still in the Atlantic Division with Florida State.

Can they establish themselves as the second-best team in the league definitively as they did a season ago, or will they slip up along the way against the rest of the ACC?

Almost the entire defense returns, including all four starters on the defensive line. That group is led by returning All-American defensive end Vic Beasley, who’s going to be one of the best defensive players in the country this year — and was last year. All the other starters return, too, including underrated tackle Grady Jarrett and end Corey Crawford.

All-ACC linebacker Stephone Anthony is back as well, as are plenty of experienced backups. Oh, and Clemson returns three of four starters in the secondary.

On offense, the list is much shorter, but it does help that the Tigers bring back three starting offensive linemen. Other than that, there will be a lot of unfamiliar faces.

Tajh Boyd, the three-year starter at quarterback and holder of all kinds of school and conference records, is gone, along with his 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year. Boyd was second on the team in rushing, too, and Clemson’s leader in rushing last year (Roderick McDowell) is also gone. Oh, and Clemson’s top two receivers — the top-10 NFL draft pick Sammy Watkins and another high-round pick in Martavis Bryant — are also gone. Between them, that’s 143 receptions and over 2,000 yards.

That’s a lot of last year’s talent at the skill positions, and Clemson lost two starting offensive linemen in Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley.

The offensive line should be fine, and backup Cole Stoudt (a redshirt senior) is set to take over after seeing only spot duty. But freshman Deshaun Watson will see time and is likely the guy going forward.

As far as running back and receiver go, it looks like it’ll be senior back D.J. Howard (213 yards last year) along with some combination of the freshmen that the staff is high on as well. Clemson should be alright there, too. At receiver, the leading man returning is senior Adam Humphries (41 catches, 483 yards) along with Charone Peake (who tore his ACL last year), but sophomore Germone Hopper had some nice moments last year. Hopper and sophomore Mike Williams were both four-star recruits. There are multiple tight ends with experience, too.

On defense, the only significant losses are linebacker Spencer Shuey (74.5 tackles) and cornerback Bashaud Breeland (10 pass breakups), the latter of which was a bit of a surprise early departure. Five-star linebacker Tony Steward is expected to take a step forward this season, and he’ll join Anthony and other experienced backups that should hold down that unit very well, particularly considering the line playing in front of them.

Breeland would have been nice to have this year, but Clemson’s two-deep in the secondary is loaded with upperclassmen who have continued to get better under defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

He’s the highest-paid assistant coach in FBS football, and he’s certainly proven his worth the last few years with the powerful Clemson attack. But without Boyd and Watkins, will the offense be as good? That remains to be seen.

Stoudt is plenty experienced, mind you, and he has a great understanding of what Clemson is trying to do on offense from having spent years in the system, patiently waiting his turn. While Clemson lost a lot at the skill spots, there are still plenty of top recruits waiting in the wings at both the running back and wide receiver spots. But is the offensive line — which was a little shaky even last year, and will be down two starters — going to be good enough? And are Clemson’s talented younger skill-position guys ready to step in and fill the enormous voids left by Boyd and Watkins in particular?

They’re going to have to, because Clemson’s defense — especially the defensive line — should be among the nation’s best. And so the offense will need to do its part and more for Clemson to be elite this year. It sounds strange to say since Clemson’s identity has been so much about offense the last few years, but it will need to stay at that level for Clemson to be the kind of team it has been the last few years. 

… Clemson avoids disaster. It’s tough for the Tigers. They’re not going to win the Atlantic Division, more than likely, because of Florida State. And so avoiding disaster means beating everyone not named Florida State on its schedule, save maybe Georgia in the opener (certainly not a disaster to lose in Athens). Losing to South Carolina would be a bit of a disaster at this point, but we’ll get to that later.

A "disaster" for Clemson, at this point, would be a very good season in the eyes of most programs — 9-3, or even 8-4 with multiple ACC losses. But Clemson is not most programs, thanks to what Swinney has accomplished there. And with the defense that the Tigers have and the offensive system they have in place, they should be able to overcome losing some pieces on offense — even if those pieces were extremely important ones.

Yes, it’s still this game, even though there are arguably others that are more important on the schedule. It’s really the only thing Swinney and company have yet to do — beat South Carolina. The Tigers have won the ACC, a BCS bowl game and beaten Florida State over the past three years. But they haven’t beaten South Carolina since Swinney took over full-time in 2009.

That’s five straight wins for the Gamecocks, if you’re scoring at home, and Clemson fans certainly are — as is South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, who has been mercilessly with his verbal barbs directed the Tigers’ way. If Clemson wins the games it is supposed to win, which it has done very well under Swinney, then it could be a one or two-loss team headed into the season-ending showdown with South Carolina. So what else is there besides getting the dreaded South Carolina monkey off of their proverbial backs?

Assuming Clemson beats everyone but Florida State, they could be in the hunt for a playoff berth, but it’s not likely. This will be the game this year. The Tigers need a win, and badly.

Clemson will likely lose to at least one of the SEC opponents it faces this year — whether that’s Georgia or South Carolina remains up for discussion, but I don’t think the Tigers will lose to both. Adding in a loss to Florida State, and it’s really not all that bad for Clemson.

The ACC schedule is very manageable; all of the Tigers’ tough games are at home, for the most part (North Carolina and Louisville). The notable exceptions are at Florida State and maybe at Georgia Tech on Nov. 15. But there aren’t many opportunities to trip up in league play, save Florida State. So it’s all right there for Clemson to finish with a record not far off last year’s mark and define themselves as the clear No. 2 program in the ACC behind Florida State. Not such a bad place to be, frankly.

No one else seems to be able to get close to Clemson as a program, and Clemson is still a step or two down from the Seminoles at the moment.