The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 15: Clemson
Coach: Dabo Swinney (29-19, entering fourth season at Clemson)
2011 record: 10-4 (6-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference, first in ACC)
Look back: The following two words defined Clemson’s 2011 season: Sammy Watkins. The true freshman from Fort Myers took the program, the ACC and the entire college football world by storm last year, wowing fans with his elusiveness and dazzling opponents with his speed. This year, with the receiver being a year older and coming off an embattled offseason that saw his controversial arrest, the Tigers are hopeful he and quarterback Tajh Boyd will showcase razor-thin focus that will lead them even further. In addition to the, at one point, Heisman-worthy praise Watkins received last fall, Clemson claimed its first ACC Championship in 20 years, and appeared in the Orange Bowl for the first time in 30. The Orange Bowl experience was one the Tigers don’t wish to relive. They lost 70-33 to West Virginia.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Key losses: TE Dwyane Allen, OT Landon Walker, DE Andre Branch, DT Rennie Moore, CB Cody Sensabaugh, P Dawson Zimmerman
Top returnees: QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, RB Andre Ellington, WR DeAndre Hopkins, C Dalton Freeman, DE Malliciah Goodman, LB Corico Hawkins, S Rashard Hall, CB Xavier Brewer, K Chris Catanzaro
Strengths: The Boyd-Watkins connection should be strong once again in 2012, as should the Boyd-Hopkins hook-up. With two of the ACC’s best receivers, and one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, the Tigers are expected to field a high-powered offense for another year. The loss of tight end Dwayne Allen may take away some production, but the balance of passing and rushing (in addition to veteran tailback Andre Ellington, the dual-threat Boyd also can tuck the ball and pick up yards if he needs to) should be more than adequate to make up for it. Defensively, the Tigers lost key pieces to their defensive line and secondary, but the starters they do have returning are hoping that a new defensive coordinator, a new defensive system and an increased focus will take away the scoring defense issues they had a year ago.
Weaknesses: Clemson ranked 81st nationally, and 10th in the ACC in scoring defense last season. On average, opposing teams scored 29.3 points per game against them. Seven opponents actually crossed the 30-point threshold.
The addition of former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables should help clean up any issues the Tigers had in 2011, but Clemson should brace for a bit of a transition period, nonetheless. With high-powered offenses like Auburn, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech looming in the first seven games, the defense will be tested early in the season. How well the Tigers play defensively in those key contests could help set up the rest of their season.
Outlook: At this point, Clemson’s exact finish is a veritable toss-up. The Tigers could easily end up right back in the conference title game, with a grudge match against Virginia Tech; the team they beat to win last year’s championship. They also could just as easily come up just short of the ACC Championship game berth. All of that depends on how well they play against FSU and North Carolina State, in particular. The Sept. 22 game with the Seminoles is their first conference game of the season. The Nov. 17 contest with the Wolfpack is the finale. Both Atlantic Division teams figure to be Clemson’s biggest hindrance to a repeat performance.
Talent-wise, the Tigers have what it takes to finish the year among the top-10. It is their schedule, and the schedules of others (for instance, on paper, FSU has an easier schedule than it did a year ago) that can make them finish just on the outside. Last season, the Tigers won their eight games before dropping three of their next five. They’ll be looking for better consistency this fall.
Sept. 1 Auburn (at Atlanta)
Sept. 8 Ball State
Sept. 15 Furman
Sept. 22 at Florida State
Sept. 29 at Boston College
Oct. 6 Georgia Tech
Oct. 20 Virginia Tech
Oct. 25 at Wake Forest
Nov. 3 at Duke
Nov. 10 Maryland
Nov. 17 North Carolina State
Nov. 24 South Carolina
Rest of the countdown: