Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 18 Clemson.
Clemson plays in the Atlantic Division in the ACC, which is the slightly-less-shitty division in the worst Power Five conference. As a result, the Tigers have been second fiddle to Florida State for the past three years, and have not really been a part of the national conversation about the nation’s best teams. Being the second- or third-best team in college football’s worst conference will do that, and this year doesn’t look like it will be the one in which the Tigers upend the status quo.
Dabo Swinney’s team started 2014 by getting thrashed by Georgia 45-21 in the season opener. It was the defense’s worst showing of the year, but led to some truly amazing highlights from the likes of Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb, so I’m fine with it. The Tigers could have still been in the playoff conversation, though, had they actually been a clutch team and won their game against Florida State.
It was a signature 23-17 escape win by a Jameis Winston-less Seminole team that Clemson very surely should have beaten. With 2:18 remaining and the score knotted at 17, the Tigers intercepted an overthrown ball from Sean Maguire and returned it to the 25-yard line. It was the easiest possible situation: pick up a first down, force Florida State to use up its three timeouts, and kick the game-winning field goal. But instead, the Tigers fumbled the ball away on a second-down run, and the Seminoles won the game in overtime.
In this game, Clemson still had its stud rookie quarterback, the majority of a top-15 defensive unit, and every excuse to not miss an opportunity to knock off a team lacking the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner. But it did, and thus ended the Tigers’ best shot at the playoff.
This year, Clemson will not have the same powerful defense it had in 2014, as the Tigers return only three starters from from the defensive unit, which was a marvelous group. With linebacker Vic Beasley at the helm, Clemson led the league in yards allowed and yards allowed per play, and manhandled Oklahoma 40-6 in the Citrus Bowl to cap a season that could have been so much more. Although corner Mackensie Alexander and linebacker Ben Boulware will return and be exceptional talents for Clemson, a lack of experience will be the killer for the Tigers in 2015, at least on defense.
The offense will still be fun as hell, though it suffered some major losses of its own. After four years of scoring at least 30 points per game as one of best offenses in the nation, the Tigers will have to try and extend that mark without offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who bolted to take over the head coaching duties at SMU this past offseason. But Clemson won’t be starting from scratch, at least. The Tigers return seven starters, including quarterback Deshaun Watson and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, who combined to haul in 1,995 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last year.
Through five games as a starter last year, Deshaun Watson impressed a ton of people with a stat line of 1,466 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He was lost for much of the season to a torn ACL, but the glimpses he provided were enough for many publications to anoint him as 2015’s best college quarterback. If he and his team can stay healthy, that assessment might not be entirely off.
Watson’s combination of speed and on-the-run accuracy make him a terrifying threat in a dreadful conference. I’ve still got some doubts as to whether he can carry a team in the same way Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, or Jameis Winston did, but Watson has the tools to make anyone look foolish for doubting him. I’m actually looking forward to some ACC games thanks to him, so here’s to hoping that knee holds up and his team can hold off on going to shit before he’s had a chance to show us what he’s got.
Nope. Even with Florida State down its starting running back and with a transfer quarterback, the Seminoles are still the favorite to win the ACC Atlantic. And if it’s not FSU winning the conference again, I have Georgia Tech taking the crown behind masterful spread option quarterback Justin Thomas. Clemson will score upwards of 35.0 points per game this season, but even if Watson is every bit as good as he was last year, he can’t save the Tigers from having a weak schedule outside of the tough top-25 matchups it probably won’t win.
There are a few big games on this year’s schedule that the Tigers will have to take care of if they want to be in the conversation come November and December. Clemson has a rough three-week stretch starting in Week 3 that will test how quickly this year’s squad can adjust to the new pieces. The Tigers will have to take down Louisville on the road, then turn around and play host to a projected top-10 Notre Dame squad, and then take on another top-10 team when Georgia Tech comes to Death Valley in Week 6. Although beating the Cardinals should be no problem, Clemson will likely lose to both the Fighting Irish and Yellow Jackets simply because those teams are just flat-out better.
And this isn’t even taking likely losses to Florida State and South Carolina into consideration. I’m not being hateful, Tiger fans, I’m being honest. Clemson won’t make it to the playoff this year.
Dabo Swinney is a weird guy. He definitely knows how to build a program and win football games; nobody is doubting that. But he’s just...off.
When he’s not making me sad about “Happy”, our boy Dabo is out there being The Man, man, and making his players hop off Twitter and Instagram while the season is in progress. It’s an archaic and ultimately useless protocol that only flies because college players have absolutely no leverage over management. Also, don’t try and pull the guy over if you’re a cop.
No. The Tigers may get lucky and somehow win the Atlantic, but they’re not close to being better than Georgia Tech, and being second in the worst Power Five conference ain’t shit.
Sept. 5: Wofford
Sept. 12: Appalachian State
Sept. 17: @ Louisville
Oct. 3: Notre Dame
Oct. 10: Georgia Tech
Oct. 17: Boston College
Oct. 24: @ Miami
Oct. 31: @ N.C. State
Nov. 7: Florida State
Nov. 14: @ Syracuse
Nov. 21: Wake Forest
Nov. 28: @ South Carolina