ACC Preview: Can Venables, Clemson piece together another disruptive defense?

Clemson’s run to the 2015 national title game was the long-awaited payoff for years of steady improvement under Dabo Swinney. Following four consecutive seasons of double-digit wins and bowl victories against national powers LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma, everything fell into place for the Tigers … until Alabama pulled away in the fourth quarter in Glendale.

The 2016 season will once again test just how high Clemson has risen, particularly in its own division. Though the Tigers bested fellow ACC powerhouse Florida State last season, the Seminoles captured the previous three league titles and have not lost a home game to Clemson since 2006. And guess where the conference’s preeminent showdown takes place this year: Tallahassee.

With Heisman hopeful Deshaun Watson back in the fold, Clemson should, barring major injury, challenge for the title of "Nation’s Best Offense." After becoming the first FBS player to pass for 4,000 yards and rushing for 1,000 in a single season, as well as being compared to Cam Newton by none other than Nick Saban, Watson leads an attack featuring a 1,500-yard rusher (Wayne Gallman), three ultra-productive receivers (Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Deon Cain) and a talented line. There are more pressing questions on the other side of the ball, but there’s a reason Clemson is considered one of the frontrunners for this season’s College Football Playoff race.

ACC TEAM BREAKDOWNS

"This team has an experience that’s different than any team I’ve had in the past," Swinney said. "I think, again, we all learn from what we go through in life, the good and the bad. The failure is just as important, if not more important, than the success."

1. Where will Clemson’s famed pass rush come from?

In 2014, Clemson’s defense finished No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss and efficiency and seventh in sacks. Then everyone disappeared. End Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony were first-round draft picks. Nose tackle Grady Jarrett and Tony Steward were also NFL-bound. In total, the unit lost seven starters and defensive coordinator Brent Venables faced the challenge of replacing top-tier producers with unproven talent.

The result? Top-10 finishes in each of the aforementioned major categories.

Venables plugged in Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd as his pass-rushing twin terrors — the two totaled 49 tackles for loss combined — while D.J. Reader plugged the middle, linebackers B.J. Goodson and Travis Blanks cleaned up at the second level and secondary standouts Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse padded their NFL profiles. After placing seven in the draft and losing eight starters overall, it’s back to square one for Venables’ defense. Is there anyone better suited for the task?

Clemson’s elite recruiting means the coaching staff can more readily find capable replacements. Playing 15 games also allowed for Swinney & Co. to provide experience to the next wave, players like former five- and four-star recruits Christian Wilkins and Scott Pagano at tackle and linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. Seniors Carlos Watkins and Ben Boulware should help anchor another strong unit; still, someone’s numbers will need to explode if the Tigers are going to lead the nation in tackles for loss for the fourth straight season. End Austin Bryant, who will miss the season opener against Auburn, is the most likely candidate to step into the Lawson/Dodd role, but the staff seems to have high hopes for Wilkins and redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell.

2. How will Clemson’s offensive line hold up?

The top priority for Clemson should be keeping Deshaun Watson upright and healthy. That’s exactly what happened last season despite hemorrhaging starters from the 2014 unit — this is the exact same narrative the defense encountered — as the Tigers boasted one of the nation’s top lines. To a certain extent, Watson’s scrambling ability and pocket presence hides mistakes, but replacing three early-season starters, including All-ACC guard Eric Mac Lain, will not be a cakewalk. Only one senior (center Jay Guillermo) returns to what promises to be a young group, though the emergence of left tackle Mitch Hyatt as a true freshman means Watson’s blindside should be in good hands.

"I honestly think we can be the best in the country," Hyatt told The State in early August. "If we work hard and get more cohesion and get better playing together, I think we can be something special."

Is the schedule really that much more difficult?

Sure, a road test against Auburn promises more resistance than last year’s season opener (Wofford). And yes, the Tigers’ biggest regular-season road block (Florida State) flips from Death Valley to the Doak, which has been a house of horrors for Clemson teams in years past. This still might be an easier slate than last season’s playoff run.

Notre Dame is off the schedule. No. 19 Louisville has to travel to Clemson Memorial Stadium. In the Coastal crossover game, a home game against Pittsburgh replaces last season’s road date with Miami. Outside of Florida State, the Tigers’ conference road games come against Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest — programs that won nine games total in 2015. Even their rivalry game against South Carolina is at home.

There’s a better-than-decent chance that Clemson’s ACC Atlantic title defense will be decided before November arrives.