Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. The annual question
"Clemsoning" shouldn't really be a thing. The expectations for Dabo Swinney's Tigers shouldn't be adjusted because, for instance, Tommy Bowden's 2008 squad began the season (over)ranked ninth in the country and finished 7-6, or because 2011 Clemson reached No. 6 in the country before losing back-to-back games to unranked opponents on the road, or because 2000 Clemson reached fifth before losing to unranked Georgia Tech at home.
The 2013 team has different players, a different schedule, etc. Every year is different. We all know this.
But in the absence of actual games, we lean on a team's history. That's just how it works. And Clemson's past exploits, "the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season," are going to be discussed anytime a Clemson squad gets ranked pretty highly to start the season.
And wow, is Clemson ranked pretty highly to start the season. I've spoken a lot about Louisville getting this year's West Virginia Bump (where your strong bowl performance sets off a wave of offseason hype and a much higher preseason ranking than you'd have otherwise gotten), but Clemson's win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl had a similar effect. With a defense that is still suspect and/or young and a recent history that features plenty of good (F/+ rankings over the last four years: 13th, 26th, 33rd, 22nd) but minimal great, Clemson is projected 20th in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, just behind Florida State and ahead of Nebraska. A favorable conference schedule will give the Tigers an excellent shot at a 7-1 record and, with Florida State visiting Clemson, a shot at the division crown. That seems reasonable, if conservative, considering recent history and considering the Tigers will be hitting the field without last year's star running back (Andre Ellington) and No. 1 receiver (DeAndre Hopkins).
But the USA Today coaches poll will be starting Clemson at eighth in the country, ahead of preseason darling Louisville, and only slightly behind No. 7 South Carolina. So now if Clemson has a good-not-great season, as projected, it will be seen as another disappointment, another "Clemsoning," so to speak. Is there any way for the Tigers to avoid this fate and actually live up to the lofty hype they don't necessarily deserve?
Quite possibly, yes. This team gets Georgia and Florida State at home, and aside from the secondary (a serious question mark), I like just about every unit. Eighth is really, really high, too high for me to cosign. But the upside is there, and the schedule is friendly (at least, until the season-ending trip to South Carolina that is all but guaranteed to end in pain).
Yes, there are land mines and road games, and no, I cannot emphasize enough how scared I am of the secondary. But I like this team a lot.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 22|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||vs. Auburn||26-19||W||28.6 - 30.0||L|
|8-Sep||Ball State||52-27||W||29.0 - 21.9||W|
|15-Sep||Furman||41-7||W||32.4 - 25.3||W|
|22-Sep||at Florida State||37-49||L||50.1 - 39.2||W|
|29-Sep||at Boston College||45-31||W||36.8 - 28.2||W|
|6-Oct||Georgia Tech||47-31||W||34.6 - 37.8||L|
|20-Oct||Virginia Tech||38-17||W||32.6 - 27.1||W|
|25-Oct||at Wake Forest||42-13||W||32.9 - 22.6||W|
|3-Nov||at Duke||56-20||W||43.6 - 20.5||W|
|10-Nov||Maryland||45-10||W||38.2 - 17.1||W|
|17-Nov||N.C. State||62-48||W||45.0 - 37.9||W|
|24-Nov||South Carolina||17-27||L||35.7 - 24.3||W|
|31-Dec||vs. LSU||25-24||W||30.0 - 21.7||W|
|Points Per Game||41.0||6||24.8||49|
|Adj. Points Per Game||36.1||14||27.2||57|
2. Things clicked
Full-season numbers were relatively nice to Clemson. Despite Sammy Watkins' injury issues, the Tigers' offense improved from 21st in Off. F/+ in 2011 to seventh in 2012; meanwhile, in Brent Venables' first season as defensive coordinator, Clemson improved at least slightly on that side of the ball, from 59th in Def. F/+ to 51st. Special teams were a bit better, too, so in all this was a successful season despite the fact that Clemson didn't repeat as ACC champions.
But if you're looking for a reason why 2013 could be even better, look first at this:
Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Clemson 30.0, Opponent 25.7 (plus-4.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Clemson 38.5, Opponent 33.1 (plus-5.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 6 games): Clemson 37.6, Opponent 24.0 (plus-13.6)
Clemson was more than a touchdown better in the second half of the season. The offense improved in late-September, and the defense followed suit in late-October. The early loss to Florida State all but eliminated ACC title hopes on September 22, and an easy schedule could have led Clemson to double-digit wins whether the Tigers were a truly strong team or not; but Clemson looked like a truly strong team, too, thumping Virginia Tech by three touchdowns, dominating Wake Forest and Duke on the road as a good team should, and waxing a feckless Maryland team as well. The loss to South Carolina was discouraging, but this team still played at a top-15 level over the last half of the year, and the win over LSU in Atlanta was a nice capstone, proof that Clemson's offensive style can work against a stout defense (well, the Tigers had already proven that against Florida State) and that the defense was improving and could stand up to a physical attack.
|Q1 Rk||16||1st Down Rk||46|
|Q2 Rk||4||2nd Down Rk||2|
|Q3 Rk||34||3rd Down Rk||5|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Tajh Boyd||6'1, 225||Sr.||**** (6.0)||287||427||3,896||67.2%||36||13||31||6.8%||8.0|
|Cole Stoudt||6'5, 205||Jr.||*** (5.6)||27||39||212||69.2%||3||1||0||0.0%||5.4|
|Chad Kelly||6'2, 210||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Nick Schuessler||6'3, 185||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
3. Tajh Boyd takes hits
It's easy to get starry-eyed about the Clemson offense. Tajh Boyd completes two-thirds of his passes while frequently throwing aggressively downfield. Sammy Watkins, when healthy, is one of the three or four best receivers in the country. The offensive line is big and deep. There are former four-star recruits littered throughout the skill position two-deep. Chad Morris, one of the most highly paid assistant coaches in the country, has proven worth the money.
But if there's a red flag here (other than the fact that Clemson lost both Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins), it's this: Tajh Boyd is basically a permanent injury risk. Boyd averaged 12 carries per game last year and was sacked 31 times. He takes a sack once for every 14 pass attempts (hazards of being both a mobile quarterback who tries to buy time to find open receivers and a quarterback who looks downfield a lot and doesn't like to check down to running backs).
Granted, the bowl game was a special occurrence -- the last game of the season, a huge game, etc. But against LSU, Boyd carried the ball 24 times and got sacked five times. He was hit during or after passes many times. Clemson needs Boyd to get as close to his physical limit as possible to be at its peak; but if he crosses that line and gets hurt, Clemson's ceiling drops dramatically. Cole Stoudt was okay in fill-in work against Ball State last season, but the dropoff ater Boyd on the depth chart is steep. For Clemson to truly be a top-10 team, Boyd has to be on the field. This is "wince and say a prayer every time he's about to get hit" territory here.
|Tajh Boyd||QB||6'1, 225||Sr.||**** (6.0)||155||725||4.7||3.7||10||+3.5|
|Roderick McDowell||RB||5'9, 195||Sr.||**** (5.9)||82||447||5.5||5.7||5||+6.0|
|D.J. Howard||RB||5'11, 195||Jr.||*** (5.7)||35||138||3.9||2.8||2||-3.4|
|Zac Brooks||RB||6'1, 185||So.||**** (5.8)||26||124||4.8||5.2||0||-2.5|
|Sammy Watkins||WR||6'1, 205||Jr.||***** (6.1)||14||97||6.9||10.8||1||+4.3|
|Cole Stoudt||QB||6'5, 205||Jr.||*** (5.6)||10||55||5.5||6.4||0||+0.2|
|Tyshon Dye||RB||6'1, 205||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Wayne Gallman||RB||6'1, 195||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Sammy Watkins||WR||6'1, 205||Jr.||***** (6.1)||76||57||708||75.0%||9.3||16.9%||61.8%||9.4||108.5|
|Adam Humphries||WR||5'11, 190||Jr.||** (5.4)||49||41||305||83.7%||6.2||10.9%||81.6%||6.6||46.7|
|Charone Peake||WR||6'3, 200||Jr.||**** (5.9)||34||25||172||73.5%||5.1||7.5%||64.7%||4.9||26.4|
|Martavis Bryant||WR||6'5, 200||Jr.||**** (5.9)||16||10||305||62.5%||19.1||3.5%||75.0%||19.8||46.7|
|Sam Cooper||TE||6'5, 250||Jr.||** (5.4)||14||10||93||71.4%||6.6||3.1%||71.4%||5.9||14.2|
|Roderick McDowell||RB||5'9, 195||Sr.||**** (5.9)||5||3||29||60.0%||5.8||1.1%||60.0%||5.8||4.4|
|Daniel Rodriguez||WR||5'8, 175||So.||NR||5||3||5||60.0%||1.0||1.1%||40.0%||2.2||0.8|
|Stanton Seckinger||TE||6'4, 210||So.||*** (5.5)||4||4||35||100.0%||8.8||0.9%||50.0%||7.5||5.4|
|Germone Hopper||WR||6'0, 175||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Jay Jay McCullough||TE||6'3, 230||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Mike Williams||WR||6'5, 205||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jordan Leggett||TE||6'6, 235||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
4. Who's No. 2?
I can't really get too worried about the running back position. For one thing, as long as he's healthy, Boyd will play a role in the running game. For another, the line should be rock-solid -- four-year starting center Dalton Freeman is gone, but six players with starting experience return (64 career starts), as do a wealth of exciting freshmen and sophomores. And for another, Andre Ellington was good but reasonably replaceable. He wasn't incredibly explosive last year, at least not any more explosive than presumptive new starter Roderick McDowell, and depth should be nice with "a bigger, bulkier Andre" (Tyshon Dye) coming off of the bench. So yeah, a solid running game (26th in Rushing S&P+ last year) should be reasonably solid again.
But Clemson makes its bones with the pass, and while Sammy Watkins is incredible when at full strength (1,225 receiving yards, 9.9 per target, as a true freshman in 2011), the Tigers benefited significantly from having DeAndre Hopkins around, first as a tremendous No. 2 in 2011 (when Watkins erupted), then as an even more tremendous No. 1 in 2012 (when Watkins was struggling). As good as we all know Watkins can be, he needs help.
Hopkins, tight end Brandon Ford, and Jaron Brown all averaged at least 8.6 yards per target, and all three are gone. Adam Humphries was a solid pitch-and-catch guy last year, and four-star juniors Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant could be ready for a step up. But the best news for this unit could be if redshirt freshman Germone Hopper and freshmen Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett keep making plays like they did in Clemson's first fall scrimmage. There are former four-stars galore here, which means the odds are pretty good that somebody will step up in to the No. 2 role. But we won't know somebody can do it until they do it.
|Dalton Freeman||C||49 career starts; 2012 1st All-ACC|
|Brandon Thomas||LT||6'3, 305||Sr.||**** (5.8)||23 career starts; 2012 2nd All-ACC|
|Tyler Shatley||RG||6'3, 295||Sr.||*** (5.6)||15 career starts|
|David Beasley||LG||6'4, 315||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12 career starts|
|Gifford Timothy||RT||6'6, 310||Jr.||*** (5.5)||11 career starts|
|Shaq Anthony||RT||6'4, 265||So.||*** (5.7)||2 career starts|
|Kalon Davis||LG||6'5, 330||Jr.||*** (5.6)||1 career start|
|Reid Webster||RG||6'5, 285||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Eric MacLain||LT||6'4, 260||So.||**** (5.9)|
|Isaiah Battle||LT||6'6, 280||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Joe Gore||RT||6'5, 275||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Spencer Region||RG||6'5, 350||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Ryan Norton||C||6'3, 270||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Harrison Tucker||LG||6'3, 290||So.||NR|
|Jay Guillermo||C||6'3, 290||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Tyrone Crowder||OL||6'2, 325||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Roster Management 101
Recruiting has never really been a problem for Clemson, a school with a decent history, wonderful traditions, an enthusiastic fan base, etc. From 2007-10, Clemson's recruiting classes ranked in the top 20 three times (according to Rivals.com) and averaged a decent 21.0 ranking overall. But the Tigers have ranked eighth, 14th, and 14th, respectively in the last three years. Dabo Swinney and his staff have picked things up a bit in this regard, but that doesn't matter without proper depth, diversity, and roster management. The best-case scenario is quality recruiting at every position, with one wave of blue-chip youth ready to succeed the one that precedes it.
In terms of the trenches (on both side of the ball), Clemson's mastered the art of roster management. We'll get to the defense below, but in 2013, the Tigers return four starters on the offensive line. In 2014, barring injury, they will return three more. And though there will be quite a few seniors in 2014, there is a bumper crop of current sophomores (including a couple of four-star kids) that should be ready to take over. The line's stats were done favors by Tajh Boyd's scrambling ability (and were given issues by Boyd's ability to take a lot of sacks), but it should be better this year and even better next year.
|Q1 Rk||111||1st Down Rk||70|
|Q2 Rk||53||2nd Down Rk||79|
|Q3 Rk||38||3rd Down Rk||33|
6. So, about those big plays…
We think back on the 2011 Clemson defense as a reckless abomination, awful in every game. It wasn't, but following the humiliation the Tigers faced against Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia in the Orange Bowl that year, changes were still necessary for Clemson to become a truly elite team. Former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables took over, and as mentioned above, Clemson's defense improved, especially over the last half of the season. The Tigers were aggressive and efficient against the run, and it paid off with stellar red zone defense and the ability to force opponents to sometimes become one-dimensional.
The problem was that, while efficiency is incredibly important, preventing big plays is even more important. And Clemson was still wretched in that regard. It's difficult to rank 16th in Rushing Success Rate+ (efficiency) and 95th in Rushing PPP (explosiveness). That means that basically every time you let a runner get more than about four yards, you're letting him gain 20. Clemson's line stats were decent, but it still appears Venables has a way to go when it comes to structuring the back seven as he prefers.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Josh Watson||DT||6'4, 285||Jr.||**** (6.0)||13||43.5||4.8%||3.5||3||0||4||1||1|
|Grady Jarrett||DT||6'1, 290||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||38.0||4.2%||8.5||2||0||1||0||1|
|DeShawn Williams||DT||6'1, 285||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||37.5||4.1%||5||2||0||1||0||0|
|Corey Crawford||DE||6'5, 270||Jr.||**** (5.9)||13||34.0||3.7%||6||1||0||1||0||2|
|D.J. Reader||DT||6'3, 335||So.||*** (5.7)||13||27.5||3.0%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Tavaris Barnes||DE||6'4, 275||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||18.0||2.0%||2.5||1||0||0||0||1|
|Vic Beasley||DE||6'3, 225||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||16.0||1.8%||8||8||0||2||1||0|
|Carlos Watkins||DT||6'3, 300||So.||**** (5.9)||9||12.5||1.4%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kevin Dodd||DE||6'5, 280||So.||**** (5.8)||8||5.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Roderick Byers||DT||6'3, 275||So.||*** (5.6)||5||3.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tra Thomas||DT||6'0, 275||Jr.||*** (5.5)||3||0.5||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Martin Aiken||DE||6'2, 255||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Shaq Lawson||DE||6'4, 260||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Scott Pagano||DT||6'4, 280||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Ebenezer Ogundeko||DE||6'3, 230||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
7. The line is ready
There is no guarantee that the back seven will be any better in 2013. But before we get there, let's talk about how loaded the front four is. Pass rusher (and nothing else) Malliciah Goodman is gone, but everybody else returns, including a junior (Vic Beasley) who was actually better at the pass-rush-only role in 2012 than Goodman was. Clemson returns a trio of strong junior tackles and a couple of solid every-down ends in Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes; the Tigers also welcome three four-star freshmen to the mix, including Shaq Lawson, last season's No. 1 prep school recruit (according, of course, to Rivals). This is the advanced Roster Management class (201, I guess?), with a healthy load of stud juniors, sophomores, and freshmen coming down the pike, one after another. And perhaps best of all, there's not a single senior. Even if somebody leaves early, this line is only going to be better in 2014.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Spencer Shuey||SLB||6'3, 230||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||71.5||7.8%||6||1||0||1||0||0|
|Stephone Anthony||MLB||6'3, 235||Jr.||***** (6.1)||13||63.0||6.9%||4.5||1||1||3||1||0|
|Quandon Christian||WLB||6'2, 225||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||32.5||3.6%||4||2||1||2||1||0|
|Tony Steward||SLB||6'1, 235||Jr.||***** (6.1)||13||21.0||2.3%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|B.J. Goodson||MLB||6'1, 240||So.||*** (5.6)||13||2.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kellen Jones||LB||6'1, 215||So.||*** (5.7)|
|T.J. Burrell||WLB||5'11, 215||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Dorian O'Daniel||LB||6'1, 205||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Ben Boulware||LB||6'1, 230||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Travis Blanks||SS||6'1, 190||So.||**** (6.0)||13||45.5||5.0%||2||0||1||7||0||1|
|Bashaud Breeland||CB||6'0, 195||Jr.||*** (5.7)||10||28.5||3.1%||2.5||1||0||3||0||0|
|Martin Jenkins (2011)||CB||5'10, 180||Jr.||*** (5.5)||14||22.0||2.3%||1||0||0||6||0||0|
|Garry Peters||CB||6'0, 195||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||16.5||1.8%||0||0||1||8||0||0|
|Darius Robinson||CB||5'10, 175||Sr.||**** (5.8)||7||12.0||1.3%||0||0||1||2||0||0|
|Robert Smith||FS||5'11, 210||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||11.0||1.2%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Dante Stewart||CB||5'8, 185||Jr.||NR||7||5.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Taylor Watson||SS||5'11, 205||Jr.||NR||12||5.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ronald Geohaghan||S||6'0, 200||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Mackensie Alexander||DB||5'11, 185||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Jayron Kearse||S||6'4, 205||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jadar Johnson||FS||6'1, 180||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
8. The secondary is … we'll see
When the Oklahoma defense was at its best under Venables, the Sooners had the pieces to oscillate seamlessly between a competent 4-3 and an almost even more competent nickel look. To combat the spread offense, you almost have to have a good nickel formation, which was a problem for Clemson last year: The Tigers really seemed to only have about four trustworthy (and healthy) defensive backs. Three are now gone, and while sophomore safety Travis Blanks could at some point turn into something pretty special and corner Martin Jenkins returns after missing 2012, the depth here is not what it needs to be.
The same, really, could be said of a linebacking corps that features two former five-star recruits and two incoming four-etar freshmen but suffered quite a few breakdowns last year.
If former star recruits begin to act like it in 2013 -- if Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward can make some plays to offset the loss of weak side linebacker Jonathan Willard, and if one or two of the freshman DB trio of Mackensie Alexander (slowed by injury in fall camp), big Jayron Kearse (a potential Tony Jefferson type capable of oscillating between safety and third linebacker) and Jadar Johnson can crack the two-deep, then the Clemson defense's ceiling gets exponentially higher. But those are some hefty ifs.
|Bradley Pinion||6'6, 230||So.||9||39.4||0||0||3||33.3%|
|Bradley Pinion||6'6, 230||So.||26||0||18||69.2%|
|Chandler Catanzaro||6'2, 195||Sr.||57-59||13-13||100.0%||5-6||83.3%|
|Sammy Watkins||KR||6'1, 205||Jr.||13||19.8||0|
|Martavis Bryant||KR||6'5, 200||Jr.||10||21.0||0|
|Adam Humphries||PR||5'11, 190||Jr.||18||4.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||26|
|Field Goal Pct||9|
|Kick Returns Avg||82|
|Punt Returns Avg||109|
9. Sammy Watkins vs. Sammy Watkins' limit
I've said a bunch of times that you never wanna know the limit on carries your [star] can have, because that means they're hurt.
Despite last season's issues, Sammy Watkins is Clemson's best receiver and kick returner; and he might be the best punt returner, too. He averaged 25.0 yards per kick return in 2011, and his "Okay, let's stop f***ing around here" kick return against Maryland that year looked disturbingly easy. But he's only helpful if he's full speed, and the more touches he gets, the less likely he is to be full-speed all season. It's a balancing act.
Regardless, it's exciting that Clemson's special teams unit improved despite Watkins' return struggles last year. Watkins and place-kicker Chandler Catanzaro are a lovely special teams combo, and Bradley Pinton might be a solid full-timer in punts and kickoffs.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|19-Sep||at N.C. State||61|
|30-Nov||at South Carolina||14|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||21|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||15|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+2 / +1.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
10. What a perfect time for this schedule
Clemson's going to be good. I'm not sure the Tigers will be No. 8 good, but this schedule sets up perfectly. Georgia comes to town in the opener, and Florida State visits seven weeks later. Yes, there are plenty of tricky road trips ripe for Clemsoning, if this team is capable of such a thing (N.C. State, Syracuse, and a Maryland-Virginia combo right after the FSU game), but even if the Tigers are only a top-15 team, instead of top-10, they'll have a decent shot at being 11-0 heading into the South Carolina game.
I'm talking Clemson up and hedging at the same time, aren't I? I can't agree to top-10, but I think last year's late improvement suggests 20th is too conservative. I'll split the difference and say Clemson should come in around No. 13-15, and if the Tigers get past a good Georgia team (one that will very much test the back seven) in the opener, that Clemson-FSU game is going to get a level of hype rarely reserved for an ACC contest.
I love Dabo Swinney's roster management, and I'm curious to see how Clemson develops in the future. The Tigers will almost certainly be without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins in 2014, but their line play could be extraordinary, and the running back corps and secondary could quickly become pretty strong, too, if some youngsters click. Swinney is building for the long haul, but he does have himself one hell of an opportunity in 2013, even if the odds of disappointment are unfairly high because of the preseason ranking.