Countdown to Kickoff: 37 days
As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what the ACC has to offer.
2016 Opponent Previews – Clemson Tigers
DEs Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd – Lawson and Dodd combined to form the best defensive end duo in the country last season. Dodd was an unknown heading into 2015, but he emerged as an elite pass rusher, logging 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss. The only player in the country with more tackles for loss was…his All-American teammate Shaq Lawson, who tallied 25.5 along with 12.5 sacks. Lawson and Dodd were both early NFL draft picks, going to Buffalo in the first round and Tennessee in the second round, respectively.
LBs B.J. Goodson– Goodson, a second team All-ACC pick, was Clemson’s leading tackler in 2015, totaling 160 along with 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 interceptions. Goodson was drafted in the fourth round by the New York Giants.
CB Mackensie Alexander, S T.J. Green, and S Jayron Kearse –Alexander was one of the best cover corners in the nation, not allowing a touchdown all season. He did not record an interception in his college career, not for lack of skill, but because opposing QBs refused to challenge him. Alexander was picked in the second round of the NFL draft by the Vikings. Green and Kearse combined to make 29 of 30 starts at the two safety positions last season and were both elite performers. Both were selected in the 2016 NFL draft (Green to Indianapolis in the second round, Kearse to Minnesota in the seventh).
OLs Joe Gore and Eric MacLain – MacLain made first team All-ACC at a guard, and graduated as Clemson’s all-time winningest player, playing in 46 Tiger wins over his collegiate career. Gore started 14 of 15 games at right tackle and made third team All-ACC.
QB Deshaun Watson – Starting anywhere else would be wrong. In his sophomore season, Watson had one of the best seasons any quarterback has ever had. He became the first player in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season on the way to finishing third in Heisman voting. The only worry for Watson is staying healthy. He battled injuries his freshman season, but Clemson is 17-1 in games that he both starts and finishes.
RB Wayne Gallman – Overshadowed by his backfield partner, Gallman quitely emerged as one of the best running backs in the country last season. He set school records for single season rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. Gallman is a powerful runner and should get plenty of running room in Clemson’s wide open offense.
WRs Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and TE Jordan Leggett – Never short of talent, the Clemson receiving corps is going to be a five headed monster in 2016. Scott was Watson’s favorite target last season, catching 93 balls for 901 yards and 6 TDs. Williams was the Tigers’ leading receiver in 2014 and was set to have a huge 2015 when he fractured his neck in a collision with the goal post on the first possession of the season. He was granted a medical redshirt and, by all accounts, should be near 100% for the 2016 season. Cain had some off field issues as a freshman, getting suspended for the Playoffs, but was a dynamic deep threat when he was on the field. Renfrow’s progression from walk-on to National Championship Game star was a great story last year and no fluke. Leggett is in position to stake a claim to the title of best TE in the country in 2016. He was named second team All-American in 2015 after leading the Tigers’ in touchdown receptions with 8.
OLs Tyrone Crowder, Jay Guillermo, and Mitch Hyatt – Three of the starters on the 2015 offensive line return. The trio accounted for 40 starts last season, with true freshman Mitch Hyatt starting all 15 games at left tackle. All three were named All-ACC performers last season and should continue to dominate opposing defenses in 2016.
DT Carlos Watkins – While the Tigers do lose a lot of talent on the defensive front, they return their first team All-ACC tackle in Watkins. He was a force up the middle in 2015 and will provide much-needed leadership and experience this season.
LB Ben Boulware – The Tiger’s fiery All-ACC linebacker returns for his senior season. He finished second on the team with 138 tackles in 2015, while leading the team with 27 QB pressures.
CB Cordrea Tankersley – Tankersley looks to step up to the Tigers’ lead cornerback role vacated by Mackensie Alexander. Last season, he started all 15 games, totaling 60 tackles and a team-leading 5 interceptions.
K Greg Huegel – Clemson’s return units were a bit of a weak spot last season but their kicking game was one of the strongest in the conference. As a freshman, Huegel led the country in field goals made with 27 and broke CJ Spiller’s school record for points in a season with 138.
DT Dexter Lawrence – Lawrence joins a crowded interior defensive line, but the consensus #2 recruit in the nation and the headliner of Clemson’s class is the type of player that will force his way onto the two-deep, if not into a starting spot. He has the size prototypical of an interior lineman while also showing flashes of speed and agility that you just don’t find in 330 pounders.
DE Xavier Kelly – Kelly was a 4 star recruit and the #8 DE in the 2016 recruiting class, according to 247. With the graduation of Lawson and Dodd, Kelly will get every opportunity to work his way into the WDE rotation for the Tigers.
WRs T.J. Chase, Diondre Overton, and Cornell Powell – Given the insane depth already at the position, it is unlikely that any of these three get significant playing time in 2016, but I just wanted to take a moment to recognize that Clemson is making a strong run at the title of WR U. They’ve got Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, and Martavis Bryant (when not suspended) tearing it up in the NFL. Charone Peake was selected late in the 2016 NFL draft. Scott, Williams, Cain, and Renfrow all seem to be future NFL draft picks. Then they pick up three more 4-star receivers in this year’s recruiting class. Just doesn’t seem fair.
2015 was one of the best seasons in Clemson football history. The Tigers stormed through the ACC, claiming their 15th ACC Championship and earning a berth in the CFP. Their magical run came to an end in the National Championship against Alabama, but they put up a much better fight than many pundits predicted. Repeating that success in 2016 will be difficult, but I’m not betting against the Tigers. The talent they lost on defense is undeniable, but it’s also undeniable how good this offense is going to be. As long as Watson stays healthy, this team will have no trouble putting up points. Watson is the best QB in the country, bar none, and he has unbelievable amounts of talent surrounding him. Gallman may be the best RB in the conference (it’s probably FSU’s Dalvin Cook, but there’s an argument to be made) and their receiving corps is as deep and talented as anyone’s. The defense returns enough that, at worst, they will be average which should keep Clemson in the National Title hunt. If Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables can develop new stars in the secondary and on the ends of the line, the defense could be one of the best in the ACC again. The talent is certainly there.
Clemson’s schedule is pretty comparable to last year’s, in terms of difficulty. Their non-conference schedule consists of home dates against Troy, South Carolina State, and the year-end rivalry game against South Carolina. They open the season on the road against Auburn which, barring some of that 2013 Auburn magic, should be an easy win. Within the ACC, notable games include home games against Louisville and Pittsburgh and road trips to play Florida State and Georgia Tech. The homer in me wants to say that a Thursday night game in Bobby Dodd will be Clemson’s toughest test, but the realist in me can’t see the Tigers tripping up there. Instead, the big test will be October 29th in Tallahassee. The Seminoles are the only team in the ACC that can match Clemson’s talent man for man, and this should be one of, if not the best, games of the season. If Clemson can win in Doak, there’s nothing stopping them from making a return trip to the College Football Playoff.
Projected Record: 12-0 (8-0), ACC Champions