NCF Nation: Brent Venables

Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris arrived on campus over three years ago with one goal -- transform the Tigers into a sleek, high-tempo scorin' machine.

Three years in, he has done that, raising the offensive bar higher than it has been in decades. You think Clemson, you think offense. Players like C.J. Spiller laid the groundwork, but Morris helped foster that identity through Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and all the rest.

So what happens now that the players who sent offensive expectations soaring are gone? How will outsiders react if Clemson starts winning with -- egad! defense?

#Faints.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"We can win 10-7, and I'd be just fine with that," Dabo Swinney said. "But I still think when it's all said and done, we'll be one of the better offenses out there."
Nobody inside Clemson expects to take a step back offensively, but the truth is, the defense is the strongest part of the team going into the season. Clemson will absolutely have to rely on that group more than it has in years past.

There is nothing wrong with that ... unless you are a program known for running 80-plus plays and scoring at will.

Then, winning with D is as fun as winter in the North Pole.

Just ask Boston College coach Steve Addazio. He knows all too well what happens when an offensive juggernaut fails to meet expectations. Rewind to 2010, when he was still offensive coordinator at Florida. Tim Tebow was gone, and the offense plummeted.

All of a sudden, a man praised for his offensive acumen turned the Florida offense into an “embarrassment.” The Florida fan base, spoiled first by Steve Spurrier’s Fun N Gun and then Urban Meyer’s version of the spread, wanted Addazio canned.

He left on his own accord to become Temple head coach, after Florida averaged 29.9 points per game. The defense fared better than the offense that season, but shoulders shrugged. Florida is not a program that scores fewer than 30 points a game, fans wailed!

Apparently it is, because the Gators have failed to average more than 29 points since Addazio left. Will Muschamp has tried to win with defense, but fans have a hard time grasping that notion. Even in 2012, when Florida won 11 games, the season felt like a disaster because the offense was so miserable to watch.

It makes you wonder what would happen if schools like Oregon and Baylor all of a sudden won with defense. Would that draw more praise or questions on the order of what is wrong with your offense? Flip the script. What if Michigan State all of a sudden started winning games with an offense that averaged 45 points per game?

Fans, and even commentators to an extent, expect teams to fit a certain script. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows this all too well. At the ACC Kickoff, he said he would love to not have to score 45 points per game because his defense was leading the way but acknowledged the double-edged sword there. Inevitably, folks would say the offense fell off The Hill.

“It wouldn't hurt my feelings at all to be known as a great, great defense and the best defense in all the land,” Swinney said. “We can win 10-7, and I'd be just fine with that. But I still think when it's all said and done, we'll be one of the better offenses out there. We've got good personnel, and I think it's going to come together just fine.”

Fine enough to continue to rank in the top 25 in scoring? Clemson averaged fewer than 25 points per game just once under Swinney -- back in 2010, his only losing record as Clemson coach. That season, Clemson had a much better defense, the only time in his tenure that has been the case.

Swinney ended up hiring Morris after that year ended, and the offense has dominated. But he also brought in one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Brent Venables after the Orange Bowl disaster in 2012. Since then, the defense has made marked improvement.

This should be his best group yet, and the players know it. They are ready to lead this team.

The question, then is this: Is everybody else ready for that?
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – With two star quarterbacks leading two high-powered offenses headed into the Discover Orange Bowl, some expect a shootout Friday night.

Wait.

Shhhh.

Don’t say that in front of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Shootouts are as unwanted as mosquitoes in summer, and Venables got a little feisty during a press conference when asked about the prospect of getting involved in a scoring free for all to close the season.

“I don't like that one bit,” Venables said. “It doesn't matter if it's Ohio State, if it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn't matter. Your job on defense is to stop people.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson's offense gets most of the press, but its defense, led by DE Vic Beasley, hasn't been too shabby either.
“Everybody wants to say it's a shootout. You take offense to that. We know we have a great challenge on Friday night, but we're not playing it on defense like let's just get one more stop than them. That's not how we operate, no matter who we're playing.”

After linebacker Spencer Shuey got off the podium, he joked, “I felt like we were at practice for a second.”

You understand why defensive coaches get, well, defensive, at the suggestion. As defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “I know we're a lot better than people give us credit for. It's in the numbers. People see Clemson as a high-powered offensive team and they just want to outscore everybody, but we've done our part. We're just trying to get better.”

There is little doubt Clemson has gotten better since the last time it played in Miami, the scene of a 70-33 debacle to close the 2011 season that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Clemson shelled out top dollar to hire Venables from Oklahoma, hoping his disciplined, aggressive style would bring respectability and then dominance.

The transformation is not complete, but steps have been made this season. Clemson ranks No. 22 in the nation in total defense, 55 spots higher than the 2011 season; No. 17 in scoring defense, 64 spots higher than 2011; and No. 8 in third-down conversion defense, 65 spots higher than 2011.

In addition, Clemson ranks No. 2 in the nation in three-and-outs and leads the nation with 112 tackles for loss. Clemson needs eight more to set the new single-season school record.

“From the player aspect, the maturity level has grown tremendously,” Shuey said. “Coach Venables has brought an unbelievable amount of trust to us and to be able to trust each other and prepare every day with what it takes. I feel like it's a different team.”

Defensive end Vic Beasley has been the standout, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, finding his spot on several All-America teams. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board and is still pondering whether he will leave school early or turn pro.

His coaches believe he could use an extra year in school to grow bigger, stronger and more dominant than he is now. One of the most intriguing matchups in the game features Beasley against Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort, who said Beasley is “more unique” than any defensive end he has faced in the Big Ten.

“He can run around you, or if he chooses to, he can take it right to you or take an inside move. He's got a three-way go,” Mewhort said. “He's got a good motor. He's very good with his hands.

“If you're not prepared for him, he'll get the best of you. So that's what I'm working on right now, just on his inside move, right through me, and going around me. If I can prepare for those three moves, I should be all right.”

The Clemson defense has faced tough quarterbacks throughout the entire season, from Aaron Murray to Jameis Winston to Connor Shaw, with mixed results. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller presents a tough challenge because he is so dynamic. Jarrett said Miller is “probably the fastest quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

His unique abilities will put stress on the entire Clemson defense to limit big plays. Running back Carlos Hyde gives the Ohio State offense even more firepower, and probably finds himself on Clemson bulletin boards this morning after declaring he wanted to set the Orange Bowl rushing record during interviews Tuesday.

Just add Hyde's quote to the pile that has contributed to the motivation the Clemson defense has used all season. Perhaps a different s-word -- a shutdown performance -- will get them some of the respect they believe they deserve.
Don’t say that in front of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Shootouts are as unwanted as mosquitoes in summer, and Venables got a little feisty during a press conference when asked about the prospect of getting involved in a scoring free for all to close the season.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson's offense gets most of the press, but its defense, led by DE Vic Beasley, hasn't been too shabby either.
“I don't like that one bit,” Venables said. “It doesn't matter if it's Ohio State, if it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn't matter. Your job on defense is to stop people.

“Everybody wants to say it's a shootout. You take offense to that. We know we have a great challenge on Friday night, but we're not playing it on defense like let's just get one more stop than them. That's not how we operate, no matter who we're playing.”

After linebacker Spencer Shuey got off the podium, he joked, “I felt like we were at practice for a second.”

You understand why defensive coaches get, well, defensive, at the suggestion. As defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “I know we're a lot better than people give us credit for. It's in the numbers. People see Clemson as a high-powered offensive team and they just want to outscore everybody, but we've done our part. We're just trying to get better.”

There is little doubt Clemson has gotten better since the last time it played in Miami, the scene of a 70-33 debacle to close the 2011 season that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Clemson shelled out top dollar to hire Venables from Oklahoma, hoping his disciplined, aggressive style would bring respectability and then dominance.

The transformation is not complete, but steps have been made this season. Clemson ranks No. 22 in the nation in total defense, 55 spots higher than the 2011 season; No. 17 in scoring defense, 64 spots higher than 2011; and No. 8 in third-down conversion defense, 65 spots higher than 2011.

In addition, Clemson ranks No. 2 in the nation in three-and-outs and leads the nation with 112 tackles for loss. Clemson needs eight more to set the new single-season school record.

“From the player aspect, the maturity level has grown tremendously,” Shuey said. “Coach Venables has brought an unbelievable amount of trust to us and to be able to trust each other and prepare every day with what it takes. I feel like it's a different team.”

Defensive end Vic Beasley has been the standout, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, finding his spot on several All-America teams. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board and is still pondering whether he will leave school early or turn pro.

His coaches believe he could use an extra year in school to grow bigger, stronger and more dominant than he is now. One of the most intriguing matchups in the game features Beasley against Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort, who said Beasley is “more unique” than any defensive end he has faced in the Big Ten.

“He can run around you, or if he chooses to, he can take it right to you or take an inside move. He's got a three-way go,” Mewhort said. “He's got a good motor. He's very good with his hands.

“If you're not prepared for him, he'll get the best of you. So that's what I'm working on right now, just on his inside move, right through me, and going around me. If I can prepare for those three moves, I should be all right.”

The Clemson defense has faced tough quarterbacks throughout the entire season, from Aaron Murray to Jameis Winston to Connor Shaw, with mixed results. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller presents a tough challenge because he is so dynamic. Jarrett said Miller is “probably the fastest quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

His unique abilities will put stress on the entire Clemson defense to limit big plays. Running back Carlos Hyde gives the Ohio State offense even more firepower, and probably finds himself on Clemson bulletin boards this morning after declaring he wanted to set the Orange Bowl rushing record during interviews Tuesday.

Just add Hyde's quote to the pile that has contributed to the motivation the Clemson defense has used all season. Perhaps a different s-word -- a shutdown performance -- will get them some of the respect they believe they deserve.

Clemson defense makes its own name

October, 17, 2013
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- There is a new celebrity walking around the Clemson campus. His name is not Tajh or Sammy, though.

His name is Vic.

Racking up sack after sack on a much improved defense has made defensive end Vic Beasley one of the most recognizable players around town, earning hellos and handshakes at a clip that has surprised Beasley.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIDE Vic Beasley bypassed the NFL draft this year to return to Clemson to get his degree and improve his draft stock.
Indeed, the biggest development in this Clemson season to date has been the way the defense has ripped headlines away from the high-powered offense and made its own name. Simply put, the Tigers D cannot be called the weak link any longer.

Not when you consider what has happened through the first six games of the season:
  • Beasley leads the nation in sacks with nine and was the only Clemson player on the ESPN.com midseason All-American team. That’s right. The lone Clemson rep came from its defense.
  • The defense has held five consecutive opponents to 14 points or fewer, the first time that has happened since 1989.
  • Clemson ranks No. 10 in the nation in scoring defense, higher than its scoring offense (No. 17). The last time Clemson finished a season in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense was 2007.
  • The Tigers rank in the top 25 in 13 statistical defensive categories.

“We came in with a big chip on our shoulder,” Beasley said. “A lot of people were doubting us and said we weren’t going to be the strength of this team, but I feel like we’ve become the strength of the team. No knock on our offense. I want our offense to be great too, but I feel like we’re making a statement to be the best in the country.”

In January 2012, coach Dabo Swinney fired Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator after a miserable 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. A performance like that would never happen again, not under his watch. Clemson had no problem playing top dollar for its assistants, and Swinney wasted no time targeting Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

In 13 seasons with the Sooners, Venables had his group ranked in the top 20 in total defense eight times. When he looked at what he would have to work with at Clemson, he knew he could mold this group into an elite unit. Almost presciently, Venables said in the spring, “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t feel this was a place you could win every game and recruit the best players in the country.”

He talked at length about what makes a good defense, saying the best teams he has ever been associated with were player driven, bonded with a unique chemistry, a special focus and a willingness to work.

This Clemson group has all those qualities. Last week, Venables discussed the brotherhood that has developed among his players, how hard they are working and how his players just love to play. Period.

“There’s a freshness about that. It’s not like it’s pulling teeth to go to practice,” Venables said. “Guys practice well; they’re around the office a lot on their own. They’re a prideful group. We don’t spend a lot of time perpetuating anything that’s negative. Whether you start over every week, or every day or every year, to me I’m not big at living in the past, good or bad. We’ve got a group of guys that are easy to inspire, that they like to play and they respect each other. They’re high effort kind of guys.”

Seeking a new identity as a strength on the team has been a source of motivation and inspiration. Every player on this Clemson defense knows what was said after the Orange Bowl, a game that lingers still today. Like their coach, they never want to go through that again.

They rededicated themselves in the offseason, intent on becoming a more physical team that would never be outworked. So far, Clemson has demonstrated that physicality. Its front seven has done a terrific job, thanks to improved depth and the play of Beasley and fellow end Corey Crawford.

Venables said nobody has improved more than Crawford and linebacker Stephone Anthony, now starting in the middle. He described them both as playing on a different planet. The secondary has also made strides from a year ago, thanks to contributions from several freshmen and a group of veterans that has been able to stay healthy.

What’s more, these players are now in Year 2 under Venables, so improvement was expected. You can see that when comparing the defensive stats over the first six weeks of last season to the first six weeks of this season. Clemson is giving up an average of 11 fewer points and 110 fewer yards per game.

“Last year at this time, we were very inconsistent from an execution standpoint and just doing all the little things that we needed to do,” Swinney said. “But that's been the biggest improvement. Guys are where they are supposed to be and have a good feel playing with high energy, and we are just much more experienced on that side of the ball than we've been in a while.”

It has not all been perfect for Clemson. The Tigers gave up more than 200 yards rushing to Georgia and more than 300 yards rushing to Syracuse. They have given up too many big plays -- 26 for 20 or more yards (15 pass, 11 run). They are still thin on depth at linebacker and in the secondary.

But they are better. The goal is to keep on this upward trend. This is only a start.

“We feel like we’ve earned some respect over the course of these last couple of weeks,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We know we’re not perfect and we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re playing pretty good, but we can be a lot better. We’re working to be the best we can be.”

Then more recognition is sure to follow.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford said he and his teammates on the defensive line wanted to send a message in last weekend’s 38-35 win over Georgia:

“We’re not a soft front,” he said. “I know last year we probably had a couple of games that made it look like that, but this year we’re taking it upon ourselves to let people know we’re not soft. We’re a physical front.”

And they looked like it in the season opener.

The Tigers sacked Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray four times, intercepted him once, forced three fumbles and recovered one, disrupted the passing game, and made plenty of athletic plays. After what was something of a slow start for both defenses -- with a halftime start of 21-21 the game quickly lived up to the billing of a shootout -- Clemson got a much-needed statement performance from its defensive line.

[+] EnlargeBrent Venables
Doug Buffington/Icon SMIClemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said he was pleased with his front line against a tough Georgia offense.
“Our guys up front won the game for us,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “At the end of the day, they were disruptive enough. They had a couple of long runs, it was really the second level -- those guys did a fabulous job of making the running backs stop and start all night. Even when Murray was not sacked, they were disruptive enough at some key times when he threw some errant balls. I just think those guys came out and played at a really high level. They took to the challenge well and responded, and to me that was the difference in the game.”

Clemson’s defense has been its biggest question mark since the Tigers were blown out 70-33 by West Virginia in the 2011 Orange Bowl. (Yes, it’s been that long.) As Clemson has improved, though, skeptics have continued to wonder if the program has an elite defense to match its record-setting offense. One of the biggest factors that has separated Florida State and Clemson, as the two tangle for the lead in the Atlantic Division, has been the superiority of Florida State’s defense, particularly up front.

With the Noles having new starters on their defensive line and Clemson’s performance on Saturday, might the gap be closing this year? The Tigers’ performance last weekend was hardly flawless -- Georgia racked up 545 yards of total offense, averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored five rushing touchdowns. Coach Dabo Swinney said there were still some communication issues and a few mental errors on the backside -- but it was a second-straight win against an SEC opponent in which the defense was a highlight.

“I thought our front played outstanding the whole game,” Swinney said. “I was really, really pleased with how our defensive line played. I thought outside of just a few critical mistakes, our backers played very well. We had a couple mistakes. On the big long touchdown we just overran it, and that was really -- even most of the big plays, none of them were really on our defensive line. I just thought they did an outstanding job, very consistent for four quarters, backers were solid.

“We had a few big plays and some things that we've got to fix, but it's a good start. Not anywhere near what we want to be, but a very good start for our defense.”

Vic Beasley led the team with two sacks, and Georgia was just 4-of-14 on third-down conversions.

“I felt like Georgia just came into the game thinking our D-line wasn’t a physical D-line, like we weren’t a line they played against all the time,” said Crawford, who had the lone interception of the game. “As the game went on, we just kept pounding and pounding them and they kept getting tired and we weren’t. We made a statement we’re not a soft D-line.”

Five things: Georgia-Clemson

August, 30, 2013
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No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.

Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:

Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.

Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.

Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).

Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).

Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.

Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.

Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.

Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.

Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.

Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.

Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.

Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite big-name offensive talent, Georgia-Clemson could come down to young defenders like Tray Matthews.
Georgia’s quarterback caught plenty of guff over shortcomings against ranked opponents well into last season. He’s 3-11 in his UGA career against teams that ended the season ranked in the AP Top 25 with 23 touchdowns versus 16 touchdowns against those teams. He’s 25-2 with 72 touchdowns and 16 interceptions against teams that finished unranked.

The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.

Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.

After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.

But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.

It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.
Summer ends here and the season unofficially begins in the ACC blog. Andrea Adelson and I are flying to Greensboro, N.C. on Saturday night for the ACC Football Kickoff, where we’ll spend two days interviewing players and coaches. For the past two weeks, we’ve been counting down the biggest storylines to the season. The conference-wide question this year hails from Death Valley, where we are wondering if the Tigers can carry the banner for the ACC this fall.

No. 1: Can Clemson win a national title?

It’s been a long time since expectations were so high at Clemson, and certainly the highest they’ve been under coach Dabo Swinney. Much of it has to do with three key components: The return of offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Heisman hopeful quarterback Tajh Boyd, and standout receiver Sammy Watkins. With four starters returning on the offensive line, Clemson should again be putting up eye-popping numbers, but will the defensive line be able to stop anyone? You can’t spell Doubt without the Tigers’ D, and it’s the biggest reason to hesitate when deeming Clemson national championship material. It should be better, though, in the second season under Brent Venables. It has to be elite, though, to handle the gauntlet that includes Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina. The good news is that nobody should be questioning Clemson’s schedule strength. The bad news? The Tigers have to be even stronger to survive it.

The countdown:
  • No. 10: Can Duke get back to a bowl game?
  • No. 9: Can UNC earn a real ring?
  • No. 8: How will the new quarterbacks fare?
  • No. 7: Can the ACC match its off-field success on the field this fall?
  • No. 6: How will Pitt and Cuse factor into the race?
  • No. 5: How will three new head coaches fare?
  • No. 4: What is happening at Miami?
  • No. 3: Will Virginia Tech rebound?
  • No. 2: Can Florida State reload?
Clemson goes into the season in the national championship conversation, but if there is one overriding question about this team it is whether it has a championship-level defense.

How do the Tigers get there? Defensive coordinator Brent Venables should know, considering he coached a national-title-winning defense at Oklahoma in 2000 and won seven Big 12 championships during his time with the Sooners. When asked what it takes to reach a championship-caliber level, Venables said:

"It comes down to leadership, toughness, attitude, guys continuing to develop. Will our guys hold each other accountable? The best teams I’ve been associated with are player-driven. They have a special chemistry about them, a special focus, a willingness to be worked, a willingness to be coached. There’s a lot of time between now and next January. We’ve got as good a chance as anybody that’s out there. Do we have enough talent and ability? Yeah, but there are a lot of other intangibles. They have to come together, and there’s a lot of work to be done between now and when we kick off. I don’t really like to talk about all those things at the end. You have to earn it and earn it one game at a time and one day at a time. I’m a firm believer in that. That’s how I’m wired, that’s the family I’ve been brought up in this profession. It’s about the work you put in every day. If you do, you’ll have a chance. If you don’t, you won’t."

Venables is not the only coach on staff who has won a national championship. Dabo Swinney won one in 1992 as an Alabama player -- and current Clemson assistant Danny Pearman was on that Crimson Tide staff. Assistant Dan Brooks won one with Tennessee in 1998, too. Coaches on this staff have been through the drama, and the pressure, of trying to make a run at a national championship.

But it's not something any of them has even discussed with his players.

"To me, you don’t sit and promote that," Venables said. "You try to be as good as you can be today. Having an opportunity to compete for a national championship, you’ve got to win your division. You’ve got to win the opener. There are so many things that have to take place, and the good fortune you have to have to get to that point. When you start focusing on the wrong things instead of controlling the things you can control today, you’re setting yourself up for failure."

Transfers to watch in the ACC

June, 11, 2013
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Freshmen are not the only players with an opportunity to make an immediate impact in the ACC this season. Let's not forget about several transfer players now eligible and ready to make their own mark.

Here is a look at the top eligible transfers in the league with the most potential to turn some heads:

Drew Allen, QB, Syracuse. The Orange actually have three transfers eligible this year -- receiver Quinta Funderburk and defensive tackle John Raymon are the other two. But neither are listed as a starter on the post-spring depth chart. Allen isn't either, but he hasn't yet had an opportunity to show what he can do. Allen will arrive in time for fall practice after deciding to come in from Oklahoma. He has immediate eligibility, and joins the mix to win the starting quarterback job with Terrel Hunt and Charley Loeb his primary competition.

Kellen Jones, LB, Clemson. We all know the Tigers need some help on defense, and they are hoping Jones fits the bill. Jones transferred from Oklahoma and sat out last season because of NCAA rules. During his time at Clemson, Jones has learned all three linebacker spots in order to make himself much more valuable to the team. He is athletic and familiar with coordinator Brent Venables from their time with the Sooners. If he's as good as coaches expect him to be, Clemson's D should be better.

Deon Long, WR, Maryland. The Terps already were expecting an immediate contribution from Long, a junior college transfer who began his career at New Mexico. But you can bet expectations will be even higher now that second-leading receiver Marcus Leak has left the team for personal reasons.

Brandon Mitchell OR Pete Thomas, QBs, NC State. Mitchell is in a similar spot to Allen -- he has immediate eligibility this season for the Wolfpack after transferring in from Arkansas and joins an open quarterback competition. Thomas himself transferred in last year but had to sit out a season because of NCAA rules. In that season, the head coach and offensive style changed, so his pro-style gifts do not necessarily match what Dave Doeren wants to do. Still, Thomas showed some flashes this spring though Doeren is reluctant to give anybody the edge just yet. With Mitchell now joining Thomas and Manny Stocker in the mix, it's anybody's guess who will start the opener.

Pat O'Donnell, P, Miami. Scoff if you must, but O'Donnell is a terrific punter and a workout warrior, and fills a gaping hole on the Hurricanes' roster. Miami may return nearly all its starters on offense and defense, but not on special teams, where the Hurricanes have to replace both punter Dalton Botts and kicker Jake Wieclaw. Getting a punter the caliber of O'Donnell, who transferred from Cincinnati and is immediately eligible, helps ease a big concern.

Matt Patchan, OL, Boston College. The Eagles need major help on the offensive line and could get it in the form of Patchan, who has immediate eligibility after transferring in from Florida. He will be available for fall practice. The only issue to keep in mind is he has been injury prone for his entire career.

Tom Savage, QB, Pitt. It's been a long road back to the football field for Savage, who transferred twice after leaving Rutgers in 2010. Now here he is with one season of eligibility remaining and an opportunity to win the starting job. Though coach Paul Chryst has yet to declare a starter, Savage at least has starting experience. Still, he and Chad Voytik remain in an open competition headed into fall practice. Another Pitt player to watch: Wisconsin transfer tight end Manasseh Garner.
Phil Steele made some bold moves.

He ranked the Hokies ahead of Clemson in his 2013 Top 40 Countdown, with Virginia Tech at No. 12 and Clemson at No. 15.

Oh, and he has Florida State as the No. 3 team in the nation.

No. 3 team in the nation?! FSU might not even be the best team in the ACC.

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsHokies QB Logan Thomas should benefit from what is expected to be a solid offensive line in 2013.
Kudos to Steele for going against the grain and giving strong reasons to help justify his rankings, but with all due respect, Florida State and Virginia Tech haven't done diddly to earn those numbers. Instead, both of those teams currently have one projected starter facing felony charges, they both fell below expectations last year, and they also had two of the biggest staff overhauls in the conference this offseason.

Steele clearly has a lot of faith in Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, but he has to have even more faith in the Hokies' offensive line and new coordinator, Scot Loeffler.

I'm not sure even Virginia Tech fans have that much confidence right now -- especially after such an abysmal showing in the spring game.

Based on what we saw this spring, Virginia Tech doesn't even look like the best team in the Coastal Division -- Miami does. There are reasons to believe, though, in Blacksburg. Bud Foster's defense could be the best in the ACC this fall, the schedule is conducive to a season of redemption, and those within the program are determined not to repeat last year's mistakes. Virginia Tech should start out no worse than 3-1, with its lone loss to defending national champ Alabama.

But can the Hokies win at Georgia Tech on a Thursday night? Can they beat UNC? Pitt? Win at Miami? There are no gimmes. Virginia Tech -- with the exception of one practice and the spring game -- had a terrific spring and made many strides the public did not see. The Hokies will be better, but they still have young receivers and plenty of questions offensively.

Florida State should again be a contender in the Atlantic Division, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see the Noles in the ACC title game again -- they should be playing for a title every year with the way Jimbo Fisher is recruiting.

But Clemson is in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, while FSU is breaking in a new coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt. Florida State has a new quarterback in Jameis Winston (though he hasn't been officially named the starter yet), whose legend is far longer than his playing time, while Clemson has a Heisman candidate in Tajh Boyd. Clemson also has one of the country's rising star assistants in offensive coordinator Chad Morris, while Florida State doesn't even have an offensive coordinator.

Florida State, though, beat Clemson last year and is good enough to do it again. Virginia Tech definitely has more to prove than the Noles, but until the ACC finds a team that can win big consistently, it doesn't have a top 5 team.

100-days checklist: ACC

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
12:00
AM ET
As of today, there are 100 days until the start of the college football season.

You bet we’re counting.

If you’re Scot Loeffler, Virginia Tech's new offensive coordinator, 100 days must feel like a nanosecond. The Hokies aren’t the only ones, though, with plenty of work to do before the season begins. Here’s a checklist of five things the ACC and its teams must accomplish before the opening kickoff:

1. Name starting quarterbacks. Syracuse can’t even talk about Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen yet because he’s not on campus and won’t enroll until next month, but the Orange are just one of several teams in the ACC that still have an ongoing quarterback competition. Virginia’s quarterback controversy has seemingly gone on for years, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has yet to officially anoint Jameis Winston as EJ Manuel’s successor. Pitt is also still searching for a dependable leader, along with NC State.

2. Find an offense in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech has become one of the ACC’s brand-name programs, a consistent winner and a representative in the Top 25 and BCS standings. That changed last season when the Hokies bumbled their way through their most disappointing season in 20 years. Coach Frank Beamer made sweeping changes to his offensive staff, but little improvement was seen in the spring game. Loeffler said it wasn’t a true indication of the progress that was made in the other 13 practices, but also conceded there is still a lot of work to be done. With Alabama looming in the season opener, all eyes will be on the ACC in Week 1. When the Hokies are good, the ACC is better.

3. Improve defensively. With the exception of Florida State, which finished the season ranked No. 6 in the country in scoring defense, 2012 wasn’t a banner year for ACC defenses. The conference usually has some of the nation’s best defenses -- including Boston College -- but there was no Luke Kuechly and no identity for the Eagles last fall. Miami beat Duke 52-45. Georgia Tech beat North Carolina 68-50. Clemson beat NC State 62-48. Clemson took a major step forward defensively with its bowl win against LSU, but the defense must become elite in its second season under coordinator Brent Venables if Clemson is going to be a national-title contender.

4. Minimize the turnovers. Virginia Tech was No. 86 in turnover margin last year, and quarterback Logan Thomas threw three picks in the spring game. Boston College was No. 88 in the country in turnover margin, FSU No. 93, NC State No. 99, Maryland No. 104, Virginia No. 110. That’s almost half the league ranked among the worst in the country in turnover margin. The Hokies play Alabama. Virginia plays Oregon. BC plays at USC. FSU is at Florida, and the Seminoles turned it over five times versus the Gators in FSU's 37-26 loss last year. The Gators scored 10 points off turnovers in that game. If the ACC is going to stand a chance, it can’t give away freebies.

5. Stay out of the trainer’s room. Virginia Tech standout corner Antone Exum is still rehabbing from the torn ACL he suffered in a pickup basketball game. The bulk of Wake Forest’s offensive line was walking wounded all spring, and that group will make or break the Deacons' season. Clemson backup quarterback Chad Kelly and starting tight end Sam Cooper both tore their ACLs this spring. If the ACC is going to beat the best this fall, it needs its best players on the field. For some programs, like Boston College, the depth isn’t there to afford injuries.

Can Clemson take the next step?

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
3:30
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The question many are wondering this offseason is whether Clemson can take the next step and be a factor in the national championship race.

ESPN Insider Travis Haney weighs in with his thoughts on that topic in a new piece, noting two key areas the Tigers must address to get there. He writes:
For one, the Tigers' yards-per-rush number -- 4.2, 69th in FBS -- was low. And that was with veteran back Andre Ellington and quarterback Tajh Boyd developing a run element to his game. ...

Secondly, coordinator Brent Venables' defense needs to continue its upward trend. Through the first six games in 2012, the Tigers were 112th out of 120 FBS teams in yards per play allowed (6.56). In the final seven games, however, the Tigers were 22nd in the country (4.91), demonstrating marked improvement under the first-year coordinator.


Haney spent time in Clemson visiting with Dabo Swinney, Chad Morris and Brent Venables for the story and has plenty of good notes in there. It is an Insider piece and you can check it out here Insider.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- When he arrived at Clemson, Vic Beasley had no real position. He was recruited as an athlete, so coaches promptly told him he would start out at tight end.

That lasted a year.

Then coaches told him he would be moved to linebacker.

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtClemson defensive end Vic Beasley, 3, had eight sacks in just 288 plays as a backup last season.
That lasted a year.

Then coaches told him he would be moved to defensive end. His reaction?

"I was like, 'I really don’t want to move again' because I really wanted to stay at one position and I really liked linebacker," Beasley said. "I was like, 'I guess it will work out' and I bought into the defensive end position and here I am."

Here he is one year later, and Beasley is not going anywhere. Not after a breakout season at end in 2012, in which he tallied eight sacks in just 288 plays as a backup.

Not after a pretty dominating spring, in which he has scored on at least two interception returns. He racked up four sacks in the last scrimmage before the spring game Saturday.

Coach Dabo Swinney referred to Beasley's move from linebacker to defensive end as a "science experiment" because coaches were not sure whether it would work. Now, Beasley is set to join the starting lineup, hoping to give the Tigers a consistent pass-rushing threat.

"I’m unaware why he called it a science experiment," Beasley said. As a follow-up, I asked Beasley why he made this transition work.

"I guess I just bought into what they were trying to get done, just went out there and gave my all and focused during practice and during meetings," he said. "I think it’s been a blessing overall because the things that I really learned at tight end, I could use at defensive end, too, so it’s all tied into each other. And from linebacker, my explosiveness I can use at the defensive end position."

Beasley still has a ways to go. Coaches want him to get up to 250 pounds after playing last year at 225. They want to see how he handles more responsibility as a starter, as opposed to just being a role player. And they want him to grow his football knowledge with another year playing the same position.

"He’still learning, trying to develop a foundation of football, what it means to be a football player, how you study the game, how you go to practice every day, compete, where you put your eyes and how you get in a stance," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "He had to start from the ground up, literally.

"He’s better, and as much as anything he’s more consistent with his attitude. He’s competitive. He’s attempting to gain weight that he needs. That’s going to help him be a more powerful, disruptive and productive player. I think he’s starting to understand how to watch video and how to critique himself, and I think he’s holding himself to a different level of accountability. Can he continue to do that the rest of spring and into the summer and into fall camp? We hope so."
With half of the conference playing spring games this weekend, here’s a look at what to watch if you’re keeping an eye on the ACC as spring ball comes to a close:

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • Quarterbacks of the future. You know Tajh Boyd is good. Expect Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly to take most of the snaps. Boyd played just four snaps in the last scrimmage. Let's see his backups.
  • The tight ends. Clemson tight ends Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford have been the first team All-ACC tight ends the past two years. Clemson tight ends have 118 receptions and 21 touchdowns the past two years, perhaps the most underrated area in Chad Morris’ offense. So who moves in there this year? Sam Cooper is the most experienced, but freshman Jordan Leggett has been impressive this spring.
  • How much better is the defense? All eyes will be on Brent Venables' group to see how much progress it has made this spring. If the D gets better, it could be a special season in Death Valley.
FLORIDA STATE

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. It's been one of the hottest topics this spring in the ACC and arguably the biggest position battle in the conference. Check out Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston as they all battle to replace starter EJ Manuel.
  • The defensive line. The competition is on to replace Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Mario Edwards Jr. is ready to jump in, along with Giorgio Newberry.
  • Don't forget the kicker. It's big at FSU. The Noles have to replace Dustin Hopkins, the ACC's all-time leading scorer and the NCAA's all-time kick scorer. It's your chance to see Roberto Aguayo, who was one of the nation's top kickers coming out of high school.
MARYLAND

When: 7 p.m. on Friday in Byrd Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The running backs. Both Brandon Ross and Albert Reid have had strong springs and will be competing for playing time come the fall.
  • The receivers. This group should be a strong point for the team this year, as Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Nigel King are a talented trio.
  • New faces on defense. The Terps have to replace six starters on defense, including some of their best leaders in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis.
DUKE

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3) in Wallace Wade Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Booooooone. Anthony Boone takes over at quarterback, and there have been rave reviews about him from within the program all spring. He's got a strong arm and is mobile.
  • New faces at safety. Some big names are gone, as Duke has to replace graduates Jordon Byas and Walt Canty, and Brandon Braxton, who moved back to receiver. Jeremy Cash, eligible now after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last fall, headlines the group that includes sophomore Dwayne Norman (60 tackles in 2012 as true freshman) and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.
  • Front and center: There is one hole to fill on the offensive line and Matt Skura takes over at center for Brian Moore.
MIAMI

When: 3 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN3)

Gates open: 12:30 p.m.

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Defensive improvement. Is there any? The Canes were one of the worst in the country last year, but they return every starter up front.
  • The No. 2 QB. Who is it? Gray Crow started the last scrimmage as the backup to Stephen Morris and completed 8 of 13 passes for 73 yards, with a touchdown and interception. Ryan Williams, who entered the spring as the expected No. 2, completed only six of his 12 passes with a touchdown and an interception. The coaches will be watching these guys closely on Saturday, so should you.
  • Running back Dallas Crawford. You know Duke Johnson. It's time to get to know this guy. Those within the program have said Crawford has had a great spring and could be a rising star this fall. He scored two touchdowns in a scrimmage in Naples earlier this month.
NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. ET on Saturday at Kenan Stadium (ESPN3)

Admission: Free

Parking: $5/vehicle

What to watch:
  • Gio's replacement(s). A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have been working to ease the loss of leading rusher Giovani Bernard. Can they be as effective as he was, how much progress have they made and who will replace Bernard in the return game?
  • The O-line. Former guard Jonathan Cooper should be a first-round draft pick later this month, and it won't matter how good Blue and Morris are if they can't find anyone to help block for them. A total of three starters have to be replaced on the offensive line.
  • Replacing big names on D. Cooper and Bernard aren't the only big names that will be missing. The defense is going to miss tackle Sylvester Williams, who could be another first-round draft pick, and linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 8.5 for loss). How does the D look without them?
PITTSBURGH

When: 7 p.m. ET on Friday at Bethel Park High School (ESPN3)

Gates open: 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Fifth-year senior Tom Savage has taken most of the reps with the first team, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik appears to be the backup, but coach Paul Chryst has yet to name a starter.
  • The running backs. Earlier this month, it was announced that Rushel Shell has decided to transfer. Since then, the bulk of the carries have gone to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. How they fare will go a long way in determining how Pitt fares in its first season in the ACC.
  • The offensive line. It's been problematic for the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, and Pitt now has to break in two new starters in Gabe Roberts and Adam Bisnowaty.
It’s time for Clemson fans to be reintroduced to the 2011 recruiting class -- a class that was highlighted by the two best high school linebackers in the country.

Clemson’s 2011 recruiting class drew rave reviews for the signatures of Tony Steward, the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country, and Stephone Anthony, the No. 1 outside linebacker in the class.

This could be the year Clemson’s linebackers finally make headlines again.

Steward is entering his third season in the program, but as far as defensive coordinator Brent Venables is concerned, Steward is still a freshman. Because of back-to-back ACL injuries, Steward has yet to have an opportunity to show why he was such a highly touted recruit. This year should be different -- not only for Steward, but for the entire group of linebackers, which is expected to be the highlight of Clemson’s defense this year. It’s a deep and talented group that is still relatively unknown, but could produce some household names -- and reintroduce a few others like Steward -- this fall.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Shuey
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesSpencer Shuey, left, is part of a Clemson linebacking unit that coordinator Brent Venables is expecting to lead an improved defense this coming season.
“It took us a little while to get settled in, but just gaining the experience, coming back from last year, we’ve got guys that are athletic, they’re disruptive, guys who can run, strike and also have a good grasp of what we’re doing,” said Venables, who is entering his second season as the Tigers’ coordinator. “We’ve got good chemistry in that group. We’ve got good quality depth, guys that probably haven’t been on the field much, but we feel good about regardless, guys like Tony Steward and Kellen Jones.

“They’ll be the leaders on our defense,” Venables said of the linebackers. “The guys have great respect for them, they all like to work, they’ve got a good chemistry about them, as well as ability.”

Clemson’s defense must replace 2012 leading tackler Tig Willard, arguably the most consistent linebacker on the team, who had 95 stops and a team-best 10.5 tackles for loss. There are plenty of options, though, and Venables began preparing them for the opportunity last November, as he rotated at least nine linebackers for about 8-15 snaps each over the course of the final three or four games.

This season, senior Spencer Shuey returns as the team’s leading tackler, and he’s a player who quietly improved and became a major contributor last year. Shuey had just 17 tackles over the first five games of 2012, but he finished the season with 93 tackles -- not bad, considering Willard played 181 more snaps over the course of the season. Venables said Shuey is a very instinctive player who “plays faster than he probably tests,” takes the right angles, doesn’t make mistakes, anticipates plays, and is smart enough that he can keep pace with some of the more athletic opponents.

“He’s invaluable,” Venables said. “When he’s out there, we play well.”

Clemson has only six starters returning on defense, and just two of the top six tacklers return, but Venables said he is confident in the depth and talent that returns at linebacker to anchor the defense.

Anthony had 77 tackles in just 459 snaps, an average of a tackle every six plays. Senior Quandon Christian also has significant experience. He started seven games last season, and had 40 tackles in 447 plays. He was a big factor in midseason wins against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech with 14 combined tackles. The staff is also excited about Jones, a transfer from Oklahoma.

B.J. Goodson is another option from the 2011 class. He was rated the No. 29 outside linebacker that year. He is big, strong, instinctive, and can play fast. Steward has made the most of the few opportunities he has had. He had 26 tackles last season, including a team-best 12 on special teams. He averaged a tackle every 5.2 plays on defensive scrimmage plays.

“I really feel good about his improvement and his understanding and just getting his strength and explosiveness back and understanding what we’re doing,” Venables said. “I’ve had a number of guys in the years I’ve coached who have torn their knees up, and it takes one solid year to get back to whatever they were prior to the injury, and he had back-to-back injuries without ever really having any kind of foundation here in college. It’s just maturity and understanding, experience and playing, but to me he’s like a freshman. It’s unfortunate. He wanted to play last year, was the consummate optimist. But that’s water under the bridge now. Hopefully some of the experience he’s able to gain will pay off.”

Just like Clemson fans expected it would in 2011.

Clemson has returned to the national picture thanks to back-to-back 10-win seasons, a plucky coach, a headstrong quarterback and some pretty eye-popping records (both good and bad).

Indeed, the Tigers have accomplished feats over the last several seasons that have not been touched for 20-plus years. Yet there is one big goal out there, reached just once in the 117-year history of Clemson football.

Ask coach Dabo Swinney about where he has the Tigers headed, and inevitably he circles back to 1981, the lone national championship season in Clemson history. The one time the program has been ranked No. 1 in a season.

You know what Swinney wants? He wants that. And he is not going to tip-toe around the subject, either. Swinney is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy, so it should come as no surprise that he has embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program headed into the 2013 season.

And his players have embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program, too.

Swinney says, "We’ve done some great things. But our goal is to compete for the national championship. We want to be in the mix for the BCS bowl every year. We want to finish in the top 10 multiple times. That’s what we’re trying to do and I think the guys understand the margin for error is very small when you’re trying to be one of those great elite teams."

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsTajh Boyd returns for his senior season and aims to take a shot at the national title.
The small group of 10 seniors certainly understand, with quarterback Tajh Boyd leading the way. Boyd returned to Clemson for his final season because he understands what is at stake, not only for him, but for his team as well.

The Tigers have a shot at starting the season ranked in the preseason Top 10 for the first time since 2008, and only the third time since 1991. Boyd, of course, is a huge reason why, as he led a Clemson offense that set 101 different records during the course of 2012. His performance against LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl was one of his best, as he showed grit, determination and an unceasing will to win in leading the Tigers' jaw-dropping fourth-quarter comeback win.

That victory has only increased expectations headed into this season, not only from outsiders but from insiders, too. Boyd said what he saw during the first spring practice last week only encourages him to believe 2013 could be something special.

"We have a lot of capabilities as a program," Boyd said. "So I’m very excited, very encouraged about what the team is going to look like this year and we just have to keep building off it."

There is plenty to build off, as Clemson has posted 10 or more wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 1987-90 era. Mark consecutive top 25 finishes for the first time since that era as well, along with an ACC title in 2011 for the first time in 20 years. All wonderful steps, but Clemson has yet to take that final one.

This season provides the best opportunity to do so in years, as seven starters return on offense. This includes Boyd and Sammy Watkins, a more mature, grown-up receiver ready to take on a leadership role. The Tigers have some key players to replace on offense, including All-ACC running back Andre Ellington and All-ACC center Dalton Freeman, who started 49 games in his career.

But the biggest questions about this team surround the defense. Again. The Tigers were better last season under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, but they were not exactly at the top of the ACC class. Despite the improvements, Clemson ranked No. 7 in the ACC in total defense. And you can still hear the bad jokes about the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia.

Now the Tigers have to replace five starters, including the majority of their secondary. They also have to replace defensive end Malliciah Goodman. Only two of their top six tacklers return.

Two more potential roadblocks. First: the nonconference schedule is tough. Clemson has to open the regular season against Georgia -- also trying to get back to No. 1 -- and close it against in-state rival South Carolina. There are plenty who will say the Tigers should focus on being No. 1 in their own state before setting their sights on being No. 1 in the country.

Indeed, Clemson has not beaten South Carolina since 2008. Last season, in the game in Death Valley, the Tigers simply had no answer for Jadeveon Clowney. Nobody needs to tell Boyd that Mr. Clowney is back.

One more potential roadblock: the Tigers themselves. Clemson has had a history of falling flat in big games, or when expectations become supersized. How will this team handle the pressure as the season grows closer?

"They know how to win but more important they know how to prepare to win," Swinney said. "That’s the process they understand because of what they’ve been through for the last couple years. This is a group that wants to be great. Our job as coaches is to help them get there and correct them and discipline them and encourage them and teach them. That’s what we do, and it goes to your leadership on your team. There can’t be any satisfaction. I don’t think anybody here is satisfied with what we’ve accomplished."

Boyd echoes those sentiments, saying, "We want to be the No. 1 team."

How do the Tigers get there?

"We just have to continue to build, trying to focus on one game at a time," Boyd said. "Of course we believe we have the opportunity to put ourselves in that situation but it can’t happen if we don’t win the first game. We have to take it from the beginning to the end and continue to focus on every aspect of the game. We just have to continue to work."

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