With signal-caller Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant off to the NFL, the Tigers will have to amp up their defense to reach double-digit wins for the fourth consecutive season.
The good news is that consensus All-America defensive end Vic Beasley chose to return for his senior year. The 6'2", 235-pound Beasley had 23 tackles for loss a year ago and needs eight sacks to break the Clemson career mark of 28. He's joined by returning stars such as senior linebacker Stephone Anthony (86 tackles) and senior tackle Grady Jarrett (59 tackles). "Maybe some of the names everybody's heard are more on the defensive side now instead of on the offensive side," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, "and maybe that's O.K."
New starting quarterback Cole Stoudt (415 yards, five touchdowns in 2013) waited three years for his chance. Swinney raved about the senior all off-season, especially about his approach in practice and his size (6'4", 210 pounds). While the Clemson offense is built to score points no matter who's under center, Stoudt's familiarity with coordinator Chad Morris's system should make his transition smoother. If Stoudt falters, DeShaun Watson, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2014 according to Rivals.com, is ready after enrolling in January.
Somebody is going to have to become the go-to playmaker the Tigers lost in Sammy Watkins, the No. 4 pick in the NFL draft. Enter Mike Williams, a former four-star recruit out of Vance, S.C. The 6'3", 205-pound Williams had 316 receiving yards and three touchdowns in limited action last year. Dabo Swinney says Williams compares favorably with former Clemson WR DeAndre Hopkins, of the Texans, and the sophomore should thrive in the potent Tigers offense.
It won't take long to figure out whether the Tigers are an elite team: They face Georgia in Athens in Week 1 and play at Florida State in their third game, on Sept. 20. Home games against North Carolina (Sept. 27) and Louisville (Oct. 11) highlight the ACC schedule before Clemson squares off with cross-state rival South Carolina in the last week of the season. The Tigers have lost five straight to their neighbors from the SEC by a combined score of 155--71.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 83%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
From an offensive standpoint it will be a challenge to replace the production they got from the quarterback and wide receiver positions. However, offensive coordinator Chad Morris is back, as are all the significant assistant coaches. They'll maintain continuity with what they're doing. And Dabo Swinney has recruited extremely well over the last three years, so they have talent.
The tempo they play is very fast. They put a lot of pressure on your defense at the line of scrimmage, and they do a good job of checking to the right play at the line. That's because they understand exactly what they're trying to accomplish on each and every play, which allows them to execute successfully. They love to get the ball in the hands of their wide receivers and skill players in space and typically they have depth at those spots. That helps a lot. Their weakness has been the offensive line, but in the last couple of years that unit has improved tremendously.
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (BEASLEY)
CHRIS RODIER/ICON SMI (WILLIAMS)