In a "what have you done for me lately" culture in sports, the last thing done by Clemson is something that Tigers fans would rather not remember, which was getting humiliated in the Orange Bowl. Sure, the Tigers scored 33 points and put up 445 yards on offense. But the part where they gave up 70 points (half of them in the second quarter) and nearly 600 yards of offense to West Virginia is the part that drew the ire of Tigers fans in the offseason. Kevin Steele left in the offseason, and the school paid a lot of money to bring in Brent Venables from Oklahoma. Venables led defenses that were among the best in the nation in his time at Oklahoma. He will have a lot of work to do though. The Tigers defense was one of the worst in recent memory, giving up nearly 30 points per game. However, the offense hummed along just fine.
To say Chad Morris was a breath of fresh air to the Tigers offense was a bit of an understatement. Clemson's offense scored on average nine more points per game in 2011 compared to 2010, and also averaged over 100 more yards of offense. Basically, pretty much every offense stat improved last year compared to 2010. Having a quarterback like Tahj Boyd will help the cause. Boyd completed about 60% of his passes for 3828 yards, and threw for 33 touchdowns. And while his stats don't bear it, Boyd is actually a good runner. Boyd is only credited with 218 yards rushing, but that number is skewed by the sacks he took. He actually gained 462 yards on the ground. There is no doubt that Boyd is on a short list of best quarterbacks in the ACC.
Another guy who is on the short list of best at their position is Andre Ellington. The senior showed he could be an every down back last year, rushing for 1178 yards and 11 touchdowns, and averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He had a career game against Maryland last year when he ran for 212 yards on 24 carries. The strange stat with Ellington is that he had a higher yards per carry average (5.3) than yards per reception (5.0). Ellington had double digit receiving yards only four times last year, with a season high of 42. Behind Ellington is the next great Clemson running back in Mike Bellamy. As a freshman, Bellamy carried the ball 57 times, and averaged six yards per carry, and scored three touchdowns.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season was the emergence of Sammy Watkins. Not much was known about how the receiving corps would play going in to last season, but Watkins help extinguish those concerns immediately, scoring a touchdown 26 seconds in to his Clemson career, faster than any other player in Clemson history. Watkins really blew up in the Auburn game with a 10 catch, 155 yard performance. Watkins finished with 82 catches, which was tied for second in the ACC, 1219 yards, second in the conference and 12 touchdowns, which tied for the most. Along side Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins caught 72 passes for 978 yards last season. Certainly Watkins deserved the praise he got last year, but Hopkins had a very underrated season. Dwayne Allen's departure will hurt, but Brandon Ford should step in and be a good option.
The weakness of the offense is the offensive line. They were really good in the run, but struggled to protect the quarterback. The line allowed 33 sacks, nearly as many as the previous two seasons combined. There will be some new starters on the line, but Dalton Freeman is still at center, and is widely regarded as the best at that position in the conference. He will not have a lot of experience around him, and it may take some time for this unit to gel.
It was a good thing the offense was as good as it was last year, because the defense was not very good. They allowed 30 or more points in seven games last year. They also allowed over 200 yards rushing five times last year. The team essentially regressed in every important stat in 2011 compared to 2012. And they also lost the leading sacker in the ACC in Andre Branch. The Tigers only return one starter on the defensive line, but that one is Malliciah Goodman, who is as durable and reliable as any other player in the conference. Goodman played more snaps than any other defensive lineman in school history last year. He's also played in all 41 games Clemson has played in the last three years. He won't have a lot of experience along side him on the line, and Goodman will be relied upon to be a leader.
I feel like you will hear a lot out of the linebackers this year. This is probably the deepest, and arguably most talented, part of the defense. They'll get another year from the prizes of the 2011 recruiting class in Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. Anthony only started three games, but showed a lot of promise. Steward was injured, and didn't play much last year. Corico Hawkins was third on the team in tackles last year. Quandon Christian and Jonathan Willard started and played a lot last year as well.
Clemson's pass defense has regressed over the past couple of years, and it was pretty bad last year. Last year was the first time since 2004 that the Clemson pass defense gave up over 200 yards a game. And the team leader in tackles came from the secondary, which is not a good thing. Having said that, I think there will be improvement this year. Bashaud Breeland is a sophomore who could be a guy to watch this year at cornerback. He showed some promise as the season went on. Rashard Hall led the team in tackles last year at safety, and Xavier Brewer was seventh in tackles, also in the secondary. Hopefully these tackle numbers go down this year because the numbers go up in the front seven.
Chandler Cantanzaro was a busy guy last year, attempting 53 extra points and 27 field goals. He missed one extra point and five field goals. All five of Cantanzaro's field goal misses were from past 30 yards. Spencer Benton will handle the punting and the kickoff duties. He was injured last year, but before that, was really good at kickoffs. Sammy Watkins was really good at handling kick returns, averaging 25 yards per return. DeAndre Hopkins will handle punts, but only returned 10, averaging less than five yards per return.
Clemson's series with in state rival South Carolina dates back to 1896, and has gone on every year since 1909. It is the second longest uninterrupted series in college football, behind Lehigh-Lafayette.
To me, everything comes down to the September 22 game at Florida State. I think they could be favored in every other game, and they are helped by having the other tough games at home. They open against Auburn in Atlanta, but I think they could be favored in that game. The offense shouldn't take a step back this year. They could be even better than last year if the offensive line improves. Bringing in Brent Venables to run the defense is huge. He is one of the best in the country, but he will have some work to do. This was not a good defense, but he does have some talent returning. I think the Tigers will win double digit games again, because the they don't have a lot of tough games. And most of the tough ones are at home. But their chance at repeating as ACC Champion will hinge on beating FSU on the road.