Today we check in with Clemson, the preseason choice to win the ACC.
Coach: Dabo Swinney (40-21 overall, 40-21 at Clemson)
2012 record: 11-2 (7-1 ACC)
Key losses: RB Andre Ellington, C Dalton Freeman, WR DeAndre Hopkins, DE Malliciah Goodman, LB Jonathan Willard
Newcomer to watch: Ryan Norton. The sophomore center takes over for Freeman, who started 49 games in his career and is one of the best offensive linemen in school history. Also keep an eye on freshman LB Ben Boulware, who has turned heads this fall and will be counted on as a game-changer on special teams.
Biggest games in 2013: Georgia, Aug. 31; Florida State, Oct. 19; at South Carolina, Nov. 30.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The secondary remains a concern heading into the season, thanks to nagging injuries that have hampered some veterans and curtailed some potential impact freshmen. Garry Peters and Darius Robinson have missed time, along with freshmen Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and Adrian Baker. The Tigers were hoping to count on Alexander and Kearse but will now wait and see how quickly they can recover from their respective injuries.
Forecast: Clemson starts the season ranked No. 8, the highest of any ACC team. The biggest reason why is the return of QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins on one of the most potent offenses in the nation. They are two of the best players in the ACC -- the two best if you ask some. But if Clemson is going to win another ACC championship, it is going to need to find answers at two spots -- running back and on defense.
All-ACC running back Andre Ellington is gone. Clemson is opting to go with a running back by committee approach this season, with Roderick McDowell listed as the starter. A senior, McDowell has waited his entire career for this opportunity, and he is ready. But Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard will also be in the mix and will be counted on heavily. If this trio, along with perhaps one of the incoming freshmen, can replicate Ellington's production, the Tigers should thrive.
As for the defense, everybody is expecting a big jump in Year 2 under coordinator Brent Venables. The front seven should be better, especially with five starters returning. Vic Beasley enters the starting lineup at defensive end after leading the team with eight sacks last year. He says he is ready to be an every-down player, and he has been impressive since the spring. The opener against Georgia provides a huge first test because the Bulldogs bring a powerful run game. The big question, as mentioned above, is the secondary. Young players will be relied upon, without question. The ACC has become a more high-tempo league, so Clemson needs this group to solidify in a hurry.
The ACC schedule plays to Clemson's advantage; the Tigers get Atlantic Division nemesis Florida State at home. They get Georgia Tech at home, too (on a Thursday night). Virginia Tech is off the schedule; Syracuse is on. But first is the big one at home against Georgia. A win would solidify national championship hopes.