Team: Clemson Tigers
2014 record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)
Recap: Despite losing two-time first-team All-ACC quarterback Tajh Boyd and first-team All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Clemson was able to produce its fourth-straight campaign with 10 wins or more—thanks in part to a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation in yards allowed per play (4.03) by a long shot.
And considering what Clemson had to deal with under center—budding superstar Deshaun Watson was in and out with injuries, and Cole Stoudt was as effective as an inflatable anchor—finishing 9-1 in its final 10 games was quite the feat.
Now that Watson returns at 100 percent and has an explosive arsenal of big and talented receivers to his disposal, the Tigers offense will be just as good as its ever been. But nine starters depart on that dominant defense, and while regression on this side of the ball is inevitable, an ACC championship run rides on just how much.
Key player: Deshaun Watson, So., QB
When Watson attempted at least 10 passes, the Clemson offense averaged 35.8 points—which would have been good for second in the ACC behind Georgia Tech. Every other game, the Tigers produced 20.6 points (minus the game against South Carolina State), and that includes the 40-6 thrashing over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Watson is undoubtedly an electrifying and oh-so vital piece to this Clemson puzzle, and without him, the term “average” comes to mind.
Biggest strength: Balance on offense
Clemson is going to be able to score in every way possible, thanks to a loaded backfield and scary-good receiving corps. Mike Williams—seriously, check this guy out—and Artavis Scott will be a ridiculous one-two punch and will stretch the field like silly putty. Wayne Gallman will be the feature back and his numbers should increase due to Watson’s dual-threat abilities and ability to get the ball downfield. The offensive line has a few names to replace, but should be sturdy enough to give the Tigers the No. 1 scoring offense in the conference.
Biggest weakness: Inexperience on defensive line
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a big task on his hands these next few months, as he must continue to develop a completely restructured defensive line that lost the majority of its players from last season’s two-deep roster. Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson will be expected to carry the torch after this unit led the way to the nation’s fifth-best run defense and the best overall in tackles for loss (131).
Most important game: vs. Florida State (Nov. 7)
What else would you expect here? Since 2009, the winner of this game has gone on to play in the ACC Championship Game. I would say that the odds of that streak continuing in 2015 are pretty decent.
Best-case scenario: 12-0 (8-0)
If there’s ever been a time for coach Dabo Swinney and company to take the next step and sweep the ACC, it’s now. Clemson gets Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Florida State at home, and its toughest road opponent is arguably N.C. State (though Louisville and Miami might have something to say about that).
Worst-case scenario: 8-4 (5-3)
But then again, this could be a year of parody within the ACC Atlantic Division. Louisville, Miami, and N.C. State are all expected to take another step forward, Notre Dame is supposedly a College Football Playoff contender (yawn), and despite a ton of turnover, Florida State is still Florida State. Even winning eight games in this division could prove to be a difficult venture, but I’m still convinced otherwise.
Early prediction: 11-1 (7-1)
If the defensive line can become consistent enough to let a powerful back seven do its job, Clemson’s ceiling has no boundaries. Coming in at No. 5 on my post-spring Top 25, the Tigers will have the opportunity to play for a shot at the College Football Playoff—but can they avoid the proverbial #Clemsoning self-destruction?