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Clemson had one of the best seasons last year. The Tigers would go through the entire regular season unbeaten and would go on to beat North Carolina in the ACC Championship game 45-37. While for the most part they would steam roll through anyone they faced (crushed Miami 58-0 down in Miami), there were a couple of games where they almost had a hiccup. A week 3 game against the Cards in Cardinal Stadium came down to a 20-17 thriller. The following week they would face off against Notre Dame in Death Valley during a monsoon. The Tigers squeaked by with a 24-22 win as they tackled a rushing DeShone Kizer short of the goal line on a two-point conversion. Clemson would end "Clemsoning" as they would be the ACC representative in the CFP and beat Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Winning a national title came one game short, however, as they fell to Alabama 45-40.
Dabo Swinney officially became Clemson's head coach in 2009 after serving as interim head coach in 2008. In his time there, he has a 75-27 record. He has won double digit games in every season since 2011, and has won the ACC Championship in 2011 and 2015, and taken the Tigers to last year's national championship game. Previously, he was a WR/TE's coach at Alabama from 1993-2000 before taking the wide receiver coaching job at Clemson from 2003-2008. He played wide receiver at Alabama from 1990-1992.
Clemson will return 12 starters (8 on offense, 4 on defense) from last year's team. The offense will, obviously, be headlined by quarterback Deshaun Watson. Another key cog in Clemson's offensive machine will be running back Wayne Gallman. Gallman was able to rush for 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns. Between Gallman and Watson, the two were able to account for 2,632 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Another important piece coming back will be senior starting tight end Jordan Legget, who caught 8 touchdowns last year.
The defense will take a bit more of a hit than the offense in terms of losing talent. Gone are key pieces Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, MacKensie Alexander, and T.J. Green. They do have experience coming back in seniors Ben Boulware, Carlos Watkins, and Cordrea Tankersley. Boulware deflected 7 passes, had 10 QB hurries, and 3 forced fumbles. Watkins is coming off of a year where he registered 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be spending a lot of time figuring out how to address the secondary, in which it lost T.J. Green, MacKensie Alexander, and Jayron Kearse, all to the NFL.
Deshaun Watson is coming off of a career year as a sophomore. He completed 67.8% of his passes for 4,104 yards and 35 passing touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. He also rushed for another 1,105 yards and added 12 rushing touchdowns to his resume. He was able to stay healthy in 2015 after coming off a year in 2014 in which the injury bug was nagging at him. In case you need any reason to be convinced of his toughness, he played with a torn ACL against rival South Carolina and went 14 of 19 and threw two touchdowns.
Having to replace 3 starters in the secondary is going to be a tough task to do. They do have All-ACC-caliber Cordrea Tankersley returning, but after that, there is a lot of unknown. Mark Fields and Ryan Carter will probably be the best candidates to battle it out for the open position opposite of Tankersley. Clemson will have to replace both safety positions, with it looking like senior Jadar Johnson will join sophomore Van Smith as the potential duo replacing T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse.
Rushing attack. You could just say the dynamic quarterback play, but that'd be a disservice to Gallman, who is a big part of this offense. The run game is such a threat that opposing defenses will be busy trying to contain Watson/Gallman on the read-option, that they leave opportunities for the Tigers to strike down the field through the air. This is evident with Watson throwing for over 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns.
4 players to remember
Deshaun Watson: Obviously.
Mike Williams: Redshirted after suffering a broken bone in his neck, he had 1,030 yards as a sophomore, the Tigers will have a good matchup with the duo of Williams and the speedy Artavis Scott.
Ben Boulware: Senior linebacker who is the leading returning tackler. Boulware is the heart and soul of the Tigers defense.
Dexter Lawrence: Freshman defensive tackle, he was the nation's #2 overall recruit, and will be making an impact this fall.
Despite the gap in talent level between the Cards and Tigers, Louisville has given Clemson a run for their money in the Cards first two seasons in the ACC. A mid-October game in 2014 saw the Cards take the game down to the wire (and goal line) in a 23-17 defeat. If only Quick could have made it in the endzone. Last year the Tigers came to Cardinal Stadium, and just managed a narrow 20-17 victory. While this year's team is going to be more talented than those two previous Cardinals teams, especially with the emergence of Jackson and the rest of the offense, facing off against an experienced Watson in Death Valley is going to be a tough task. If the Cards do pull this off, I would imagine it would be Petrino looking to take advantage of a new Tigers secondary. Watching Jackson and Watson orchestrate the offenses in the first week of October is going to be quite an entertaining thing to witness.