USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Clemson has a problem. The problem is South Carolina, namely, and not beating South Carolina is, well, annoying.
There's a silly line of thought that suggests Clemson is unhappy with any season that includes a loss to South Carolina, regardless of whether or not the Tigers win every other game on the schedule. This logic – illogical, in a word – suggests that Clemson's fan base is not familiar with the program's recent past.
Tommy Bowden, Clemson's coach from 1999 through the first half of 2007, went 7-2 against the Gamecocks and 65-43 against every else; the Tigers never won more than nine games under Bowden's direction, never won a single piece of conference hardware and never participated in a bowl game of national consequence.
Then there's Dabo Swinney, who is 1-5 against South Carolina – 0-5 as the full-time coach – but 50-18 against the rest. Swinney's teams own three Atlantic Division titles and, in 2011, the program's first conference championship since 1991. Two of the Tigers' last three teams have reached the Orange Bowl.
The last time Clemson lost a regular-season team to an opponent other than South Carolina and Florida State came on Nov. 19, 2011, when the Tigers lost on the road to North Carolina State. Given the option of being the Clemson of old or the Clemson of new, take that new-car smell and enjoy the ride, folks.
But Clemson has a second problem. That problem is Florida State, namely, and the Seminoles are less of an annoyance and more of a bullying frustration. Therein lies the Tigers' third problem: Clemson measures itself against the Seminoles and Gamecocks. New Clemson, yes, but somewhat familiar problems.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
That's not to say that the Tigers can't run the table; I just see two or three losses during the regular season, which keeps CU in the BCS hunt but a step removed from the championship conversation. This should be a stronger team that does no better than tread water in the win column.
In a nutshell: The program's best team in decades. Clemson lost just twice, to the aforementioned rivals, and bookended the year with two victories of huge consequence: Georgia in the opener, back when the Bulldogs were a healthy menace, and Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. In between, Clemson manhandled its way through the regular season with the two exceptions – Florida State steamrolled the Tigers, South Carolina bullied the Tigers. But no other ACC opponent remained with single digits off the Tigers; just two, N.C. State and Boston College, remained within two touchdowns. All that was missing was the one win that could turn the tide for this entire program: FSU or South Carolina.
High point: Georgia and Ohio State. For the second year in a row, Clemson went into the offseason rolling with confidence.
Low point: South Carolina.
Tidbit: Clemson has been ranked in the past 46 Associated Press polls, the seventh-longest active streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The school record for consecutive polls is 50, set from 1989-92; barring a surprise, Clemson will set a new mark by October.
Tidbit (SEC edition): Clemson has four victories against ranked SEC opponents since the start of the 2011 season: Auburn in 2011, Auburn and LSU in 2012, and Georgia a season ago. There have been only 12 non-conference wins against ranked SEC teams across the entire FBS during this span.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Golf courses in South Carolina
1. Kiawah Island
2. The Dunes
3. Harbour Town
5. May River
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The best question doesn't ask whether Cole Stoudt's going to be Clemson's starter; that's already been answered, with the senior set to serve as Tajh Boyd's successor in coordinator Chad Morris' never-fail offense. The best question asks for how long, and what Stoudt would need to do – in terms of his own statistical output and Clemson's overall record – to fend off true freshman Deshaun Watson, the Tigers' future under center. Replicating his limited production as Boyd's backup couldn't hurt: Stoudt was electric in garbage time against inferior foes last fall, showing a solid arm and a strong grasp of the system. At the same time – and with all due respect to the senior – Stoudt doesn't near Watson's breadth of physical gifts; one, Stoudt is a placeholder, while the other, Watson, may be a future star.
The most likely scenario has Stoudt starting early, taking some lumps against Georgia and Florida State, while Morris and the Tigers bridge the way to Watson by the heart of the season. At the very least, Watson's going to play a huge role as the backup quarterback. Let's also remember one fact, keeping this in mind as we discuss the entire offense: This guy is gone, that guy is gone, but Morris remains. That's reason for excessive optimism.
The offense must also replace a 1,000-yard rusher and, in Boyd, a valuable red-zone and short-yardage option. It seems likely that the Tigers go with a by-committee approach in the backfield, starting with senior D.J. Howard (213 yards), junior Zac Brooks (246 yards), junior C.J. Davidson (155 yards) and redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman. Swinney has also floated the idea of using freshman Kurt Fleming as the Tigers' bigger back, perhaps in those down-and-inches situations. One back who seems very unlikely to contribute is redshirt freshman Tyshon Dye, who suffered an Achilles injury in February; Dye, a very gifted recruit, has been unable to remain healthy.
The offensive line will slowly work its way into shape before the opener – though two projected starters, David Beasley and Isaiah Battle, will sit out the Georgia game for a violation of team rules. Clemson needs the latter: Battle is pegged as the Tigers' replacement for Brandon Thomas at left tackle, where he'll become the blind-side protector for a pair of untested quarterbacks. If he can get stronger – and he's trying to add weight – Battle could do a nice job. While Clemson has spent this month shuffling players to and fro, searching for the best starting five, it's probably safe to project the following: Ryan Norton at center, Beasley at left guard, Kalon Davis at right guard and either Shaq Anthony or Joe Gore at right tackle. It's also safe to say Clemson could shift Davis out to right tackle and promote Jay Guillermo into the top spot at guard.
Defense: Florida State has the ACC's best quarterback, backfield, receiver corps, offensive line, linebackers, kicking game and returners – and overall talent, if that wasn't evident. The Seminoles have the league's second-best defensive line, however; that honor goes to Clemson. This is where the rubber meets the road: Clemson's offense is going to be slightly less productive – remember that Morris is still here, however – but its defense seems ready to embrace the challenge, with the hope that Brent Venables' attack makes the necessary strides to keep the Tigers in the ACC hunt. In particular, this defensive line – loaded with an All-American and near-unmatched depth – is going to lead the charge.
The story might center on senior Vic Beasley (44 tackles, 13.0 sacks), a clear-cut All-American whose decision to return for his final season greatly beefs up Clemson's hopes of slowing down Florida State. But the biggest theme is this: Clemson has strong faith and trust in as many as 10 linemen, creating a rotation guaranteed to give most opposing offensive line jelly-kneed anxiety. The list: Corey Crawford (52 tackles, 10.5 for loss) and Beasley at end, which is fantastic; senior Tavaris Barnes and sophomore Shaq Lawson (35 tackles, 10.0 for loss) as the outside reserves, with Lawson the program's next great end; senior Grady Jarrett (83 tackles, 11.0 for loss) as the anchoring, all-conference lock at tackle; and, in total, an interior combination of – hold your breath – Jarrett, seniors Josh Watson (47 tackles) and DeShawn Williams (37 tackles), junior D.J. Reader (43 tackles) and sophomore Carlos Watkins. This group is going to roll out wave after wave of talent, owning the line of scrimmage and harassing quarterbacks against the vast majority of competition. It sets the tone for the entire defense – if not the entire team.
The linebacker corps builds around senior Stephone Anthony (131 tackles, 13.5 for loss), an All-American candidate from his spot in the middle. While two starters must be replaced, the Tigers seem more and more likely to use a fifth defensive back in lieu of a strong side linebacker; the defense still needs a sturdy body to handle the load on early downs, but don't be surprised if junior Travis Blanks continues to spend time as the Tigers' hybrid linebacker-safety. He'll be joined on the strong side by sophomore T.J. Burrell, a more traditional linebacker with the speed to run in space. On the weak side, Clemson is angling for a productive final season from senior Tony Steward, a former five-star recruit who has yet to fulfill his potential – due to injuries or otherwise. Between Steward and sophomore Ben Boulware, the spot seems in good hands. I'm also interested to see how Venables uses Kellen Jones, a former Oklahoma transfer who shined early last fall before suffering an injury of his own. The front seven is really, really good.
And the play of the defensive front will have a profoundly positive impact on Clemson's secondary, which is steady along the back end but retooling at cornerback. At safety, the Tigers return senior Robert Smith (79 tackles) and sophomore Jayron Kearse (55 tackles), with Blanks always an option to slide to the deep middle. Between these three contributors, the Tigers have to feel secure about the defense's ability to limit big-play potential – a bit of an issue last fall, admittedly, but I think they'll do a better job in 2014. The secondary does lean dangerously young at cornerback, but there's no doubting the talent: Mackensie Alexander would've been a major factor last fall if not for injury, sophomore Cordrea Tankersley had a great offseason and seniors Garry Peters and Martin Jenkins have been through the fires of ACC play. A fifth option, Korrin Wiggins, could fit on the outside, in the slot or in a hybrid role. Again, these cornerbacks will benefit hugely from an aggressive front four.
Special teams: The kicking game is a concern. The Tigers will replace Chandler Catanzaro – the best in school history – with one of junior Ammon Lakip, who got his feet wet last fall, or incoming freshman Alex Spence; neither inspires huge confidence, though Spence was one of the nation's top specialists as a recruit. Junior Bradley Pinion brings great directional acumen to the punting job but lacks a huge leg, which hurts at times in field position. Last year's return game was distressingly ineffective even with Sammy Watkins doing the honors, so it's only logical to expect a nice degree of improvement.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: Even at Clemson, which snags all-world talent on a fairly regular basis, a player of Watkins' ability will be impossible to replace. That's slightly less true of Martavis Bryant, another early-exit underclassmen who made waves riding Watkins' attention-grabbing production. That there's no Watkins and no Bryant back in the fold is slightly troubling, but only slightly: Morris remains – just so you remember – and there's a solid mix of returning experience and impressive young talent, meaning the offense could opt for six or seven reliable targets to recoup Watkins' impact. Good luck, young men.
Start with what we know: Adam Humphries (41 receptions for 483 yards) will lead the charge, if not statistically then in action; junior Charone Peake returns from injury, which provides a major boost; sophomore Mike Williams (20 for 316) has been very impressive, if in a smaller role; and sophomore Germone Hopper seemed to work his way back into the rotation down the stretch last fall, which is a good sign. That's your top four for the opener, at least. But keep an eye on the young guys: Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Trevion Thompson are going to play immediately, with Scott – a top-100 recruit – pegged to serve as Humphries' backup in the slot; I think he's going to have a fantastic rookie season. The Tigers will also get ample production from the tight end spot, where junior Stanton Seckinger (21 for 244) and sophomore Jordan Leggett (12 for 176) form an impressive pair.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
South Carolina: Florida State's going to be a behemoth. Yet the season can still end in the playoff – let's keep this fact in mind – with a loss to FSU but wins against Georgia and South Carolina, particularly if the Tigers hang tight with the Seminoles on the road. Notching a win against the Gamecocks would be great; notching a win against an undefeated South Carolina team would be, well, the greatest thing to happen in the history of mankind.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Yeah, Clemson has some daunting personnel losses to overcome – nearly all on offense, however. This still remains a wildly dangerous team, one more than capable of another double-digit regular season should the new cast come together before hitting against Georgia and Florida State in September. I can think of two reasons in particular why any sense of pessimism seems unfounded: one, the offense still has Morris calling the shots, and two, this seems very much like the best defense of Swinney's tenure with the program. When it comes to the offense, it's possible to understand the losses yet still remain optimistic – because Morris is the finest offensive coordinator in college football.
I think the offense remains among the top three in the ACC. The biggest decline will be seen in general explosiveness: Clemson lacks the big-play threats at receiver, obviously, but also at running back; that means longer, more consistent drives rather than downfield strikes. That, in turn, demands reliability from quarterback: Stoudt's under some major pressure. At some point, Watson will take on more and more of the offense; Stoudt stills holds the key, however, particularly in the opener against Georgia. Clemson still has enough weapons to maintain at least a strong portion of its recent successes – and let's remember that Morris is still around, in case I hadn't mentioned that already.
But what makes Clemson a potential sleeper is this defense. The line might be the best in college football. It's a group that will trickle down throughout the entire defense, giving Anthony and these linebackers room to operate and the secondary – the cornerbacks in particular – time to develop. In fact, one could make a simple case: If the offense remains stout, Clemson will have incredibly impressive balance. Will it be enough to carry the Tigers past Georgia, FSU and the Gamecocks? It won't be easy. But taking just one of the three – and it won't be FSU, sadly – would leave Clemson with a very good chance at double-digit wins and a spot well inside the top 15 teams nationally. That Georgia comes on the road is one issue; that the Tigers seem unable to beat FSU and Carolina is another.
Dream season: Clemson loses to Florida State but takes all the rest, ending South Carolina's reign with a three-touchdown victory.
Nightmare season: Clemson loses to Georgia, Florida State, Louisville and South Carolina.
Who's No. 14? This program is 8-11 in games decided by seven points or less since the start of the 2010 season.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1