As the college football season inches closer, we decided to start our annual series taking a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team in the ACC. Next up: Clemson.
Deshaun Watson stated it himself in the aftermath of defeat: The Clemson offense’s motivation is to be the best ever in college football. And with players such as Watson, among many others, returning on that side of the ball, why not? The Tigers will have two new starters on the offensive line, and that’s about it. Considering how well Clemson handled the makeover its line underwent last season, there should be no concern.
Additionally, the Tigers get back a 1,000-yard receiver from 2014 in Mike Williams, who missed all of last season after a Week 1 neck injury. There is the potential for multiple 1,000-yard receivers, in addition to a 1,500-yard running back in Wayne Gallman. And that’s not even accounting for a potential Mackey Award front-runner at tight end in Jordan Leggett.
And there’s that Watson character, too. He’s no longer the bridesmaid in our best-case scenario for Clemson; he wins the Heisman Trophy in convincing fashion after finishing third in 2015. As important, Clemson’s ever-reloading defense does it again, the way it did last season, ranking among the ACC’s best behind talented underclassmen such as Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins, and veteran leaders Ben Boulware, Cordrea Tankersley and the emerging Dorian O'Daniel.
After falling to Alabama in the 2015 championship game, Clemson finishes the job this season, surviving a tough test at Florida State and running the table all the way to Tampa, Florida, where the Tigers win the school’s first national title since 1981.
Does complacency set in? We’ve seen this so often in recent years with teams that were supposed to be dominant: 2013 Alabama, 2014 Florida State, 2015 Ohio State. Sure, all of those teams managed to lose just one or two games, but they were also the defending champions, making those following seasons all the more disappointing. Clemson didn't win it all in 2015, but the expectations are similar for a program that might not be as used to the annual target on its back that the aforementioned blue bloods carry.
Coordinator Brent Venables has more work to do than simply snapping his fingers and plugging in the next crop of precocious defenders. Just three starters return from last season's unit, which had returned just four starters from the nation’s top-ranked defense in 2014, and, well, at some point all that attrition has to take a collective toll, no? Adrian Baker's spring ACL tear dealt an already green secondary a tough blow. The offense has no proven No. 2 quarterback should Watson need to take a load off. And let’s not forget the special-teams woes that reared their ugly head on the biggest stage of them all last season.
Our worst-case scenario for Clemson has the Tigers getting tripped up by another set of hungry Tigers in the opener under the lights at Auburn, a rude awakening that portends an uneven season. The talent on this roster and its accompanying schedule should be too much to snap Clemson’s five-year streak of 10-plus wins, but a road date at fellow national title contender FSU makes that a shaky proposition, with several other potential traps across the schedule. With all of that offensive firepower, Clemson goes 9-3 in the regular season, an applaudable record at most places but a harsh blow to a team that enters 2016 with national-title aspirations.