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. 19 Clemson.
Last year’s national championship game proved many things to be true: O.J. Howard may have invisibility powers, special teams are kind of important, and, most importantly, Clemson is going to be fun as hell in 2016.
The big draw for the Tigers is obviously their quarterback, Deshaun Watson. While the Clemson rushing game outside of Watson added 62 yards against Alabama, the sophomore owned the Crimson Tide defense—the No. 3 defense in the nation at the time—by smacking it with 447 total yards of individual offense; he was ultimately done in by Father Time and a dipshit secondary.
Such factors may plague him again this season, but given what he’s shown through one-and-a-half seasons of play, Watson may just be good enough to push his team back to the playoff. The fact that he has the nation’s top collection of playmakers surrounding him also helps.
Wayne Gallman is back a year after posting 1,514 rushing yards and 13 scores as the Tigers’ top running back. He was a bit of a no-show in the title game, but it’s not really fair to give any running back a hard time for being shut down by last year’s Alabama rush defense. Given that Gallman finished 13th in overall rushing yards and was/is kind of an afterthought in this Clemson attack should show you just how dangerous this year’s group is going to be.
The Tigers’ receiving corps is this team’s prized possession. Yes, Watson is a special talent and deserves to be the team’s Guy To Know, but this receiving unit has been garnering hype as one of the best wideout groups assembled in the last five years. Last season, Clemson fielded four players who went on to compile more than 500 receiving yards; that was done with the nation’s best receiver on the sidelines.
Mike Williams suffered a broken neck bone in last season’s opening game against Wofford. The talented wideout snagged a four-yard touchdown pass from Watson and careened headfirst into the goalpost; luckily, the redshirt junior has since made a full recovery. Now at full speed, the 6-foot-3 receiver will return to the field and instantly become the most dangerous weapon at Watson’s disposal. As a sophomore, Williams posted 1,030 yards and six scores to pair with his 18.1 yards per catch average. He was expected to play a major role in last season’s offense; when he went down, the Tigers offense, thanks to it being a well-constructed machine loaded with playmakers like Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and Artavis Scott, chugged along.
With Gallman and all four of his top wide outs returning to Clemson for the 2016 season, Watson and the Tigers are going to chew up ACC defenses, and every time you have a chance to watch them decimate an entire fan base’s dreams of being the ones to knock them off, you should.
Despite all this firepower, a return to the playoff, or even the ACC title game, is not a given for the Tigers. It’s absolutely possible! But Clemson will have to answer quite a few questions—seven, to be exact—on defense, where it returns just four starters from last year. It will also have to fix some glaring special teams issues Alabama shined a light on in the title game. That being said, the defense lost nine starters from the 2014 unit, which was the No. 1 defense in the nation, and still finished in the top 10 in 2015. They’ll (most likely) be very good, again.
With the departure of Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, the defensive line has two massive question marks at the end positions. The duo was the main source of quarterback pressure last season, as they combined for 24.5 sacks. Adding on to the already-tall task of replacing the two, presumed starter Austin Bryant will miss the season opener against Auburn due to a broken bone in his foot. Richard Yeargin is set to start opposite of Bryant when he returns.
The interior line should be set, as tackles Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence are all monsters capable of putting a stop to any inside running attack. Senior Ben Boulware, an All-ACC selection in 2015, will hold down the Clemson linebackers along with Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel.
The secondary will be the main concern for this team. Jadar Johnson is the unit’s sole senior starter and corner Cordrea Tankersley is the only returning starter. Marcus Edmond is currently in line to step into the other starting corner spot, though Mark Fields and Ryan Carter have both been pushing to earn the nod. Expect to see a couple different iterations of this group as the year progresses; aside from Tankersley, nobody in the unit has proven their on-field abilities and all of them will be tested to find a perfect fit. It’d be a shame if the Tigers made it back to the playoff only to once again forget how to cover a tight end.
Deshaun Watson is electricity, bottled in a 6-foot-3 frame. After dazzling spectators in only five games as a freshman due to an ACL tear, Watson was heralded by many as the next great college quarterback in the lead-up to last season; he did not disappoint. The spear of a truly exciting Clemson offense, Watson led the Tigers to an undefeated regular season and an ACC title by doing just about everything you could ask of a quarterback. His accuracy was stunning, regardless of whether he was in the pocket or not, and his athleticism allowed him to reel off 1,105 rushing yards and 12 scores. Watson wrapped the 2015 season with a 67.8 completion percentage to complement his 4,104 passing yards and 36 touchdowns, earning him a third-place finish in the Heisman Trophy poll.
Watson was the best quarterback in the nation last year and nothing leads me to believe he won’t reclaim the title this season. He will likely cut down the 13 picks he tossed last year, and with Williams back, his total touchdown tally will likely climb above 50 by season’s end. Put simply: if you’re not watching Watson, you might as well not watch college football, because this is as good as it’s going to get this year.
The Tigers have an offensive attack most offensive coordinators would sacrifice their first-born to run and a defense that, while inexperienced, is still full of top-notch athletes. Clemson will need to do the normal things everyone else has to in order to reach the playoff—stay healthy, limit turnovers, and field a decent secondary—but aside from that, the trip back to the playoff is one of the easier ones in the nation, considering both the team’s talent and schedule.
The main test will come in late October, when the Tigers head to Tallahassee to take on a terrifying Seminoles squad. Both Clemson and Florida State have bye weeks prior to their Oct. 29 matchup, so any short-term injuries will be able to heal up and the teams will have a full 14 days to prepare for what is currently one of the most anticipated games of the regular season.
Aside from clashes with Auburn, Louisville and FSU, the Tigers should really cruise through this schedule. Going to Georgia Tech is never easy, but, again, look at this offense. Given the talent Clemson will be trotting out each week, unless the entire team comes down with the plague, there’s not much that convinces me any of their final four games will be decided within 25 points. Clemson has one major hurdle to clear, and they’ll have a full two weeks to prepare for it. The Tigers have as clear a path as anyone outside of Oklahoma to reach the playoff—now, we get to kick back and see if Watson and Co. can pull it off.
Dabo Swinney is, like many of the best, a great football coach and a dick. He makes the top market rate for being one of top college football coaches—over the next six years, as long as he stays at Clemson, he will make just under $32 million. That is a lot of money, but that’s not why he’s a dick; if colleges are willing to pay football coaches a pretty penny to make their athletic departments big and strong and profitable, coaches should take the opportunity.
What makes Swinney a dick is the fact that he can make such ungodly amounts of money to coach a silly sport and then offer comments like this one to the Post and Courier:
“We try to teach our guys, use football to create the opportunities, take advantage of the platform and the brand and the marketing you have available to you. But as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.”
He doubled-down on the comments after John Oliver placed him in the crosshairs in 2015, telling Sporting News in a puff piece that he’s a “big believer in the student-athlete part,” and that a scholarship is plenty compensation for his athletes. Dabo Swinney? More like Dick-o Swinney.
Sept. 3: @ Auburn
Sept. 10: Troy
Sept. 17: S.C. State
Sept. 22: @ Georgia Tech
Oct. 1: Louisville
Oct. 7: @ Boston College
Oct. 15: N.C. State
Oct. 29: @ Florida State
Nov. 5: Syracuse
Nov. 12: Pittsburgh
Nov. 19: @ Wake Forest
Nov. 26: South Carolina