EVERY COLLEGE football team in the country starts another season with unanswered questions. Those teams with the fewest questions annually emerge as the nation’s top teams.
A year ago, Clemson was coming off a losing season. It also had enough unanswered questions that a second consecutive non-winning season was not out of the question.
Would the spread offensive of new offensive coordinator Chad Morris pan out? How steep would the learning curve be for first-year starting quarterback Tajh Boyd? Could Clemson survive a midseason stretch against Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech? Could running back Andre Ellington remain healthy? Would Clemson’s defense come together after the loss of several all-star performers?
That Clemson won 10 games and captured its first ACC championship in two decades means the Tigers successfully answered most of those questions. In so doing, Clemson also eliminated many of the same for this season.
It is not unreasonable to believe Clemson’s success of a season ago came one year ahead of schedule. Now the Tigers appear poised for bigger things: Another ACC title and perhaps a challenge for the BCS national championship.
That will only happen if Clemson can successfully answer three questions that loom over this season’s squad:
• Can new coordinator Brent Venables transform a Clemson defense that allowed 30 or more points to seven opponents a season ago, including the 70-point disaster against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl? Venables has an excellent track record over the past 13 seasons at Oklahoma. His Sooner defenses annually were among the stingiest in the nation.
• Can Venables’ defense stop opponents with an inexperienced line? Only senior end Malliciah Goodman returns as a starter, and Clemson likely will use three unproven sophomores up front.
• Can Boyd, Ellington and spectacular sophomore receiver Sammy Watkins operate at full-force with a rebuilt offensive line? Only senior center Dalton Freeman and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas return as starters.
The guess here is that the defense will be much improved — could it be much worse? — and that means opponents no longer can move the ball at will against the Tigers.
The other guess is that Clemson’s fast-paced offense will continue to improve under the direction of Morris. The Tigers have too many weapons not to score a boatload of points, and Boyd should benefit from having one full season as a starter.
So, what does all that mean? It means Clemson again will challenge for the ACC championship. The season’s pivotal game arrives Sept. 22 when the Tigers play at Florida State. In all likelihood, the ACC’s Atlantic Division championship goes to the winner.
That game will be one of two in which Clemson plays as the underdog. The other will be against South Carolina. Let’s say the Tigers split those two games, probably losing to Florida State and defeating the Gamecocks.
Clemson will be favored to defeat Ball State, Furman, Boston College, Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland. The Tigers will win all those games, with the only real challenge coming at Boston College.
That leaves Clemson with toss-up games vs. Auburn in Saturday’s opener in Atlanta, and in home games against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and N.C. State. Let’s call for Clemson to split those four games.
A 9-3 regular season will put Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where the Tigers will defeat Florida for a second consecutive 10-win season.