Thursday, June 26, 2014
Take 2: Can Clemson win 10?
By David M. Hale and Matt Fortuna
Dabo Swinney's three-year run of 10-win seasons may be at end this fall.
It's hard to argue with the success of the Tajh Boyd/Sammy Watkins era at Clemson, with the duo helping the Tigers to three straight 10-win seasons for the first time since 1987 through 1990. But Boyd and Watkins are gone now, along with a lot of other talented contributors from last year's Orange Bowl champions, so the question of whether Clemson can stretch the 10-win streak for four straight seasons is up for debate. So, of course, that's exactly what ACC bloggers Matt Fortuna and David Hale decided to do.
Fortuna says 10 wins is the benchmark: At first glance, 2014 does not seem like the ideal year for Clemson to continue its recent three-season run of 10 or more wins. The Tigers lose a record-setting quarterback in Boyd, a 1,000-yard rusher in Roderick McDowell and the No. 4 overall pick from this year's draft in Watkins.
Perhaps more importantly, they face daunting road tasks in the first-quarter of their season, opening at Georgia on Aug. 30 before traveling to ACC rival Florida State on Sept. 20. If Clemson and all of its offensive firepower lost by 37 points at home last year to the Seminoles, what should make anyone think it can fare much better this year in Tallahassee?
As valid as that question is, it might not matter much in the scope of this debate. On top of that, neither will the question of how Clemson is supposed to march into Athens with a first-time starting quarterback and steal a win over the Bulldogs in Week 1.
While there may never be an ideal time to lose so much offensive firepower, especially when you're a team that has had such a strong offensive identity in recent years, the Tigers could do a whole lot worse than what they have returning on defense, which might be enough to carry them to similar heights of recent past.
Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett should help give the Tigers one of the nation's top defensive lines, and if cornerback Mackensie Alexander can emerge the way many expect him to in his first year, the defense should be the best that coordinator Brent Venables has churned out.
Expectations may not be as high as they were entering last season, but that doesn't mean a 10-win season isn't within reach. Vegas seems to suggest it is possible, as Clemson is favored in six of nine games that the Golden Nugget has posted for betting. The Tigers are underdogs for the aforementioned trips to Georgia and FSU, and they are three-point 'dogs against rival South Carolina, which really isn't all that much when you consider both recent history and the offensive production Clemson has to replace.
Still, by that point questions will have been answered, especially at quarterback, whether that be Cole Stoudt or Deshaun Watson. And while expecting an undefeated run between the FSU game and the South Carolina matchup may be asking a bit much, it isn't unreasonable for a team that has made its fans' least favorite verb (hint: it ends with -ing) a thing of the past.
We may learn more this year about Dabo Swinney and his staff than we have in the last three years, and that could prove favorable for the future of the program.
Hale says the streak comes to an end: It's not that Clemson doesn't have ample talent remaining on the roster even after the departures of stars like Boyd, Watkins and Brandon Thomas. But the strengths of this Tigers roster are a lot different than what we've come to expect from Swinney's teams, and that means Clemson is going to need to learn how to win in ways that don't involve its prolific quarterback chucking the ball to one of its electric receivers. And the problem with that plan is, the Tigers aren't going to get much time to develop a personality before its put to the test.
In the first month of the season, Clemson gets Georgia and Florida State on the road and a home date with North Carolina, a trendy pick to win the Coastal Division. It's not unreasonable to think the Tigers' 10-win hopes will be on life support before the calendar flips to October -- with Louisville, Georgia Tech, South Carolina and a bowl opponent still on the docket.
The tough early road means quarterback Stoudt will need to hit the ground running, and while the senior is certainly capable of doing that, it's hard to envision him matching Boyd's superb numbers from last year's Georgia game or out-dueling Jameis Winston a few weeks later. And if Stoudt struggles early, the calls from concerned fans for the freshman phenom Watson will grow louder and louder. Quarterback controversies and 10-win seasons tend not to go hand-in-hand.
What's more, even if Stoudt is sharp from the outset, he's not going to go to battle with the same weapons Boyd enjoyed the last few years. Watkins, Martavis Bryant and DeAndre Hopkins have all departed early for the NFL draft in the past two years, plundering the depth chart at receiver. The running game has ample depth, but again, no proven commodities like Andre Ellington and McDowell have been in seasons past.
In fact, Clemson is one of just four ACC teams to lose its leading rusher, receiver and passer from last year. The other three — Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest — aren't exactly getting a lot of 10-win buzz.
Of course, all of that ignores the potential for dominance on the other side of the ball, where the Tigers have a front seven that promises to be as good as any team in the nation. But between Winston and Todd Gurley, Bobby Petrino and Steve Spurrier, there are a few talented offenses just waiting to test Beasley & Co., too.
The truth is, 10 wins or not, this will be a year of transition for Clemson, and in the long run, the Tigers will probably be a more well-rounded, complete team because of it. But when two SEC heavyweights, a team with 23 wins the last two years and the defending national champion are all on the schedule, it's probably prudent to expect a few too many growing pains along the way for the streak to continue.