CLEMSON — As the euphoria subsides and Clemson fans flutter black to earth, it’s worth taking inventory.
Here are five things that should keep the conversations optimistic until next season’s opener against Georgia:
• Two years ago, Dabo Swinney cleaned out the offensive closet and hired Chad Morris. That worked, and Morris seems to be on board as offensive coordinator for at least one more season. His plan for LSU, turning the game into a marathon, was a testament to his commitment to the system and belief in the players’ ability to adhere to it even after Sammy Watkins was injured on the second play of the game.
One day in the not too distant future, Morris won’t be on the Clemson sideline. Study him, appreciate him.
• The offensive line under Robbie Caldwell should be bigger, stronger and deeper, even without the gentle prodding of center Dalton Freeman. Caldwell took a group that included returning starters and a former defensive tackle and helped Morris create an offensive machine, almost like MacGyver collecting scattered parts and turning it into a sleek machine.
• Should DeAndre Hopkins leave, nobody will be shedding tears for the remaining Clemson receivers. For all his setbacks over the past year, Watkins may be best in the nation next season if he continues to walk a straight path. There are concerns about Martavis Bryant after he flamed out at the end of the semester, but former high school teammates Charone Peake and Adam Humphries are talented, freshman Germone Hopper can fly and a new recruit or two could push into the picture.
Also critical in the passing game are Sam Cooper, who may replace Brandon Ford as the primary tight end, and the sure-handed Stanton Seckinger, who needed to add muscle wherever he plays.
A year ago, Swinney was so disgusted with the defense that he fired Kevin Steele and hired Brent Venables. The difference today couldn’t be starker. Instead of coming off the worst performance in history, Venables can build off the unit’s best game of the year.
Steele frequently talked about “the process” or the evolution. In a new scheme under Venables the evolution was evident, from the worst — 667 yards by Florida State and 597 by N.C. State — to its best in the final game.
There’s still work needed to become stouter against the run and to push the buttons creating a more consistent pass rush, but there’s a lot of talent in the front seven with more coming. Plus, Venables has a new secondary coach to bring along a unit that includes Bashaud Breeland, Travis Blanks, Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters.
• And kicker Chandler Catanzaro may be the best in the game next season — NFLDraftScout.com rates him No. 3 among juniors. He thrives on pressure, and though there may be longer legs, his accuracy was impressive. He missed one field goal — a 48-yarder at Wake Forest — and two extra points.
Beyond all that, a couple of issues will gnaw until they are resolved.
First, Tajh Boyd and DeAndre Hopkins have until Jan. 15 to declare for the NFL draft, and the bowl game may whet their appetites for the pros.
Hopkins is more ready and may make the jump because the talent pool of eligible receivers isn’t deep. At best, he may be a mid-to-late second-rounder — NFLDraftScout.com rates him No. 6 at receiver and 42nd overall — this year or next.
Boyd will play on Sundays one day, but he needs another season to mature and refine his game. His performance against LSU was brilliant, but that was one game. He needs to do it again and again, and he needs to be in the conversations for the Heisman Trophy in September and October and to beat South Carolina in November if he wants to be in New York with Jadeveon Clowney in December.
Secondly, the ACC is in a state of flux, and it may take a while to sort out. The potential conference landmines on Clemson’s schedule are a home game with Florida State and trips to N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Maryland — assuming the Terrapins aren’t playing Ohio State or Michigan that weekend.
A win over Georgia to open the season would bolster any flirtation with the BCS, but the remainder of the schedule may be precarious with the Gamecocks on the back end looming more daunting than ever should the Tigers somehow reach Williams-Brice Stadium undefeated.