To conclude our opponent previews, we spoke with Ryan from Shakin the Southland, SB Nation’s premier Clemson blog.
1) Last year's accomplishments were completely watershed for Clemson. They got over the ACC Atlantic Division hump, won the conference title, and advanced to the national title game in the CFP. What made last year's team so special?
As cliche as it sounds, last year's team had a lot of heart and was easily motivated. They fed off the doubters on ESPN and were always seeking to prove them wrong.
Once they beat Notre Dame, a playoff run seemed possible, but they managed to have fun along the way and avoid "playing not to lose." Coach Swinney gets immeasurable credit for creating this culture which was put on full display when the Tigers hosted 30,000 fans in Death Valley just to give out pizza, thank the fans for loyal support, and celebrate the kids.
They were incredibly talented too. It's not as if this is some spunky upstart. They have a sensational five-star QB and four-star talent all around him. The toughness in the trenches has finally caught up with the rest of the talent and we're enjoying the results. Dabo has built a strong foundation and has the program in a strong place.
2) The obvious question to this year is what they can do for an encore, and how likely is that to happen?
It's incredibly hard to make it to a National Championship game. No team, is "likely" to make it to the National Championship, though none may be more likely than the Clemson Tigers.
Now that we've seen what's possible, I fear this season will not feel like a success unless the Tigers deliver a title in what is almost certainly Deshaun Watson's final season. Last season was so much fun, and I am not sure if we can enjoy the ride and live in the moment as much as our fan base did last season.
3) I'm sure bringing back Deshaun Watson is going to be huge for the Tigers. What is it about him that makes him so special, and is there any concern for a hangover in 2016?
Deshaun Watson may very well be the best QB in Clemson history. He has a knack for knowing when to run and when to pass and doesn't rely on his legs to his detriment. He throws a great deep ball and is a quick decision maker. Maybe best of all is his attitude. He is a very humble, soft-spoken kid who isn't flustered by the lime light. Report from this offseason is that he has added 16 lbs of good weight and has maintained his speed.
As for a hangover, I actually like how our schedule sets up for us. We start at Auburn, which gives the players a motivating factor as they work all offseason for a big game. Fortunately for us, I don't think Auburn gets back to the level they were at a few years ago. In particular, I don't think they're in position to really test Clemson's young secondary. We then get two cupcakes before traveling to Georgia Tech. Despite a down year last year, the Yellow Jackets actually lose a lot of key players, especially on defense. It's a scary name for Clemson who hasn't won in Bobby Dodd since 2003, but I don't expect GT to be much more than a borderline bowl team.
Louisville and Florida State will be incredibly difficult games. Both are excellent opponents (I'm high on Louisville this year), but losing to one of them would hardly constitute hangover. I am worried about injuries or a bad bounce against a key Atlantic Division opponent that ends up keeping us out of the Playoff. I'm not worried about a lack of motivation of general regression.
4) The defense lost both Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. Who are some of the names who could be new playmakers for the team?
I expect Clemson to be dominant at stopping the inside run. Even Alabama couldn't do much against Clemson's interior line and the Tigers return Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins while adding 5-star Dexter Lawrence to the mix. Where you'll see new faces is at defensive end, where, as you mention, Lawson and Dodd have departed from.
Austin Bryant stepped in and played well in the Orange Bowl after Lawson left the game with an injury. I expect Bryant to get a lot of snaps this season and I am not too worried about his production. He'll have Chris Register backing him up and if needed Christian Wilkins has been taking reps at strong-side defense end and could move out of the interior to help.
At the WDE position Clelin Ferrell (not to be confused with Colin Ferrell) is expected to start. He was a highly-touted recruit and returns from injury. Behind him is Richard Yeargin who is expected to be an effective speed rusher. I believe these guys will mesh well, but if not that GT pitch game could become frustrating.
5) What are the best case and worst case situations for the team this year?
I think this team could definitely play for another National Championship, though even the best of teams making it through the gauntlet isn't likely. Obviously injuries could strike and really decimate the team. Barring a total debacle I can't image them losing more than three regular season games.
6) Okay - now what's a realistic expectation?
I'm really high on Louisville this season. I think Lamar Jackson has an opportunity to take the next step and that offense could finally catch up to what has been a good defense for a couple of years now. Winning at Florida State is also going to be very tough. They're incredibly talented and if they can manage good QB play they can content for a National Championship. I think Clemson could split with them and hope to win a tie-breaker. Predicting 12-0 is like assuming you'll draw a full house, but I think 11-1 is actually fairly realistic and not just orange-tinted homerism.
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