2014 Record: 10-3
F/+ Rank: 14
Wins: South Carolina State, North Carolina, NC State, Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Georgia State, South Carolina, Oklahoma
Losses: Georgia, Florida State, Georgia Tech
After winning the Orange Bowl and finishing in the top 10 in 2013, Clemson knew they had the talent to ascend once again to a New Year's Six/BCS type bowl game in '14. Given the strength of the ACC, they just needed to finish with a similar record and hold serve in bigger type games. They even had the door open, if they could upset FSU, to represent the Atlantic Division in the conference championship game with an outside chance at the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Dreams of playing in a signature bowl game, however, fell apart almost immediately in the season's first three games. The Tigers lost two of their first three, sandwiching a 73-7 win over FCS South Carolina State between two major defeats - #12 Georgia (41-25) and #1 Florida State (23-17). The latter, in overtime, was the infamous game where Jameis Winston was suspended for making vulgar exclamations in the student union center. With the hoopla surrounding the game, it was a golden opportunity to take a win and potentially knock the Seminoles off the Atlantic Division perch.
Undaunted, though, Clemson rallied with a string of big victories. They defeated UNC, 50-35, then shut out NC State (41-0). They scored a couple of close victories against Louisville (23-17) and Boston College (17-13), then defensively dominated Syracuse (16-6). After beating Wake Forest (34-20), Clemson had the chance to fight their way back into the big time bowl discussion against Georgia Tech. But they lost, 28-6, effectively ending any chance at a major game.
After wrapping up two wins against Georgia State (28-0) and rival South Carolina (35-17), they earned a berth in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Ranked in the top 20, the Tigers destroyed Oklahoma, 40-6. Though they wouldn't qualify for a New Year's Six game or the CFP, Clemson finished the year with 10 wins and one of the more solid programs in the nation. Ranked 15th at the end of the year, they weren't necessarily an elite team like Ohio State or Oregon but were one of those teams that didn't experience a meteoric collapse following the graduation of some athletes.
Series: Clemson leads, 13-9-2
First matchup: 1940 (Clemson won, 6-3, in the Cotton Bowl)
Last matchup: 2014 (Clemson won, 17-13)
Dabo Swinney might be the best coach in the ACC, if not the nation. He took over six games into the 2008 season when Tommy Bowden resigned following a 3-3 start. Almost immediately, the culture surrounding the team changed. They won four of their last seven games, including breaking their six game losing streak to BC, en route to a berth in the Gator Bowl. From there, the Tigers have finished no worse than with nine wins every year except for their 6-6 regular season in 2010 that culminated with a loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Each of the past four seasons, they've won 10 games with one conference championship, another Atlantic Division title, and two Orange Bowl trophies.
Swinney is known as a tremendous recruiter, having brought in top 20 classes every year since he started. He's one of just 25 coaches with a .700 winning percentage as a head coach or higher, and of those 25, only 10 have coached longer than five years - a club he belongs to. He's never missed a bowl game, and he's one of the primary reasons Clemson is one of the best programs in the nation.
What makes last year's Tiger incarnation so impressive is that they retooled on the fly. From their 2013 roster, they lost quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receivers Sammy Watkins. They lost a couple of offensive linemen, a couple of defensive backs, and their place kicker. Despite bringing back a stout and capable defense, the offensive losses potentially opened the door for teams to defeat them.
Instead, they rallied and created new heroes. Despite going down injured during his freshman season, Deshaun Watson might be the best quarterback in the ACC. They developed new threats in Artavis Scott and Mike Williams at wideout, and Wayne Gallman is back in the backfield after finishing as an all-conference running back.
In the offense-heavy college game, this might be the year Clemson is able to outscore everyone en route to a conference championship.
If there's one thing that can derail the offense, it's going to be the offensive line; Clemson enters the 2015 season as one of the most inexperienced teams in the trenches. Losing essentially everyone from a year ago can undo all the progress made at the skill positions, and it'll be hard to utilize all of those threats if Watson spends the majority of his time in the grass.
Clemson has two returnees - one each on the left and right sides of the line - but they'll have to develop chemistry with a bunch of guys who haven't played together. That's something that's underrated and occasionally tough to do, especially since the Tigers also are in their first full year under their co-offensive coordinators.
Returning Quarterback: Yes
Deshaun Watson is arguably the best QB in the ACC when he's healthy and upright. He's coming back from a late season torn ACL, but he has two games to shake off the rust against Wofford and Appalachian State. That means Watson will likely be hitting his stride when the Tigers play the bulk of their tough stretch of the season.
I'm not one to buy into the hype machine, but if he's healthy, Watson could find himself on stage accepting some hardware at the end of the year.
Biggest Problem for 2015:
For all we've talked about the offense, I have some bad vibes about the Clemson defense. Vic Beasley is gone, and while you can never replace a guy like that, the Tigers also have to replace Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. Throw in Grady Jarrett being gone, and all of a sudden Dabo's breaking in an entirely new front seven. If they can't do that, they're going to rely on the offense a little bit too much - something I think they can do but really don't want to do.
The good thing about Clemson is that if the defense takes a step back, that offense conceivably can bail it out as much as possible. I think Wayne Gallman might be one of the best and most underrated running backs in the ACC, and although he's not on par with the way CJ Spiller played a few years back, he's a threat. The receivers are great to elite. Watson may deal with getting hit, but I think the talent will help lift the offensive line to just the height they need to be. Watch out for the Tigers in 2015.