No. 1 Clemson is 9-0 for just the third time in school history, made even more remarkable when you consider the way the Tigers have gotten here.
On the latest depth chart for the Syracuse game, Clemson lists zero returning starters on the offensive and defensive lines. That’s right: Clemson has nine new players manning the trenches, where most games are won or lost. Count up their career starts headed into 2015 and you get 11. Total. After Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret pondered the last time a contender had to replace all nine starters on both lines, I did a quick Internet search of depth charts going back to 1990. Since then, no team has won the national championship with entirely new offensive and defensive lines.
So, how has Clemson done so well with so many new faces?
Good coaching. Talented young stars. And veteran players who gained valuable experience as backups over the past several seasons.
The defensive line and coordinator Brent Venables earned wide praise for their ability to maintain an incredibly high level of play despite losing so many starters. Clemson ranks No. 5 in the nation in total defense. The Tigers deserve all the credit they have received.
But you could argue the biggest revelation has been the way the offensive line has come together. After Isaiah Battle decided to enter the supplemental draft in the summer, Clemson decided it would start true freshman Mitch Hyatt at left tackle. This past week against Florida State, Hyatt won ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors after grading out a season-high 93 percent. He had four knockdown blocks and played all 85 snaps in the 23-13 win. The grade was the highest on record for a Clemson freshman, and tied for the highest received by any Clemson player this season. He is the first Clemson true freshman to be named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week and the first for any ACC school in at least 10 years.
But he is not the only one who has received the honor. Center Jay Guillermo has won ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week twice; right tackle Joe Gore also won it after the NC State game. What Guillermo has done cannot be understated. Center Ryan Norton entered fall camp as the only returning starter on the offensive and defensive lines, with 24 starts under his belt. But he has been out since getting hurt in Week 2, leaving Guillermo to start the majority of the season. Remember, Guillermo was not even with the team in the spring after taking time away to deal with depression.
Clemson has rushed for more than 200 yards in six of nine games and ranks No. 2 in the ACC in rushing (217.8 ypg). The last time the Tigers averaged more than 200 yards on the ground? 2006.
On the defensive side, players like Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Scott Pagano and Carlos Watkins filled key backup roles a year ago for the No. 1 defense in the country. Headed into the season, Clemson felt much more confident about those players stepping right into starting roles. Pagano took a huge leap after D.J. Reader left the team in the spring, and Pagano has started the first eight games. True freshman Christian Wilkins has been terrific, too, ranking fourth on the team with 60 tackles in a backup role.
With each performance, there continues to be a sense of wonder over what the defense has accomplished. Eight starters overall had to be replaced, including four draft picks. Venables, however, keeps pushing for more.
"I think we can be better," Venables said. "Our guys know that. They’re hungry to be great. They recognize and take ownership when it’s not great, so they’re very coachable. We’ve got a knowledgeable group of guys. They care, got a chip on their shoulder and I love a lot of the leadership. We’ve got a good chemistry as a defense, and we can be better. That’s my mind-set and I think our guys own that as well."