A lot must go right for Dabo Swinney to log a fifth straight season of 10 or more wins at Clemson, let alone fulfill any loftier ambition.
Ask tomorrow and the answer might be different, but today Clemson looks like an 8-4 team headed to a bowl game whose upside might be a genuine Tex-Mex binge.
Much of the season hangs on the promise of several freshmen and the ability to run and to stop the run.
All the rhetoric about the bonding and cohesiveness rings hollow until there’s tangible evidence this offensive line can handle the better opponents on the schedule. Settling on five starters took a while, and that’s not necessarily good. Even if there’s a comfort level with the 10 on the depth chart, three of them have never taken a snap, including left tackle Mitch Hyatt.
Hyatt may be a really good player some day, but Wofford and Appalachian State and Shaq Lawson probably won’t prepare him for Sheldon Rankins on Thursday night in Papa John’s Stadium and Pizza Emporium. Are there enough tight ends to cover his outside shoulder?
If that doesn’t trigger nightmares for Watson, he’s one chill dude.
Clemson does not want Watson to be the focal point of its run game. An offensive line struggling to pass block eventually affects its proficiency in the run. With as many as four backs, last year’s top rusher Wayne Gallman, there shouldn’t be any need to lean on Watson unless the line breaks down.
Watson could have a monster year throwing the ball if the line holds and he isn’t required to run for self-preservation.
The perception he might be injury prone or fragile is absurd, really. Nick Schuessler and Kelly Bryant are the insurance policies at quarterback, maybe Tucker Israel at some point.
There are concerns about where and to whom Clemson turns next if there are injuries at linebacker, which could test defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ creativity as well as his patience. Last season, Stephone Anthony played a team-high 711 defensive snaps in 12 games. If Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson each play nearly 800 this season, the matter could be moot.
Even if Kendall Joseph can be physically ready for Louisville and Jalen Williams doesn’t quake in his spikes, Venables may feel like a chef opening the refrigerator and thinking, “I need to go to the store.”
Stopping the run isn’t totally on the linebackers, though after the second scrimmage Swinney dropped a subtle hint when he mentioned how frequently the running backs reached the secondary. Losing tackle D.J. Reader for the short term could push freshman Christian Wilkins into a major role on a line already racked by graduation.
Special teams needs substantial improvement. Last season in conference, Clemson was 11th in punt returns (100th nationally) and 10th in kickoff returns (115th nationally), and seventh in defending punt returns (46th) and kickoff returns (41st). ESPN ranked Clemson 121st in special teams efficiency.
Clemson opens 2015 with a new kicker and new punter.
Faced with three games without kicker Ammon Lakip, Swinney hadn’t anticipated Greg Huegel would emerge as a potential solution. Huegel, who twice auditioned for a spot on the team as a walk-on, displayed a strong leg during preseason drills and attracted the respect of his peers.
Some teams prefer not to punt under any circumstances. Georgia Tech averaged slightly more than two a game last season. Oregon, Ohio State and Florida State average fewer than 3.5. Clemson averaged six. A former high school all-state lacrosse attacker, punter Andy Teasdall won a scholarship in August after a brief audition as a sophomore and a solid spring.
After generating one touchdown last season, Swinney seems prepared to put his fastest players in position provide a spark in the return game.
If everything comes together, the schedule seems well suited for an ambitious team with questions in several critical areas.
A real sense of where this team might be in December or January could quickly come into focus if Clemson sweeps games 3 through 5. Lose one or two and the remainder of the schedule looks more vexing, even with Florida State at home.
No. 3: Those midweek TV games haven’t been the best showcase for Clemson so Louisville on Thursday could morph into a shootout with Watson having a chance to win it in the final possession.
No. 4: Notre Dame is – well – Notre Dame, bringing the kind of swagger everybody aspires to replicate. Think the Yankees or the Celtics or Man U coming to town.
No. 5: Nobody runs the ball better than Georgia Tech. Wofford should provide an intriguing first look of the defense against the option, though open casting calls for linebackers might follow.
Whomever Jimbo picks at quarterback, Florida State can’t be trusted to roll over and play dead on the road, particularly if running back Dalvin Cook is on the field.
Neither Miami with quarterback Brad Kaaya, nor N.C. State with running back Shad Thornton are receiving much respect, but both teams could be hiding in the tall grass for an ambush.
And South Carolina in Columbia, that’s always problematic.
Best case is a 10-2 season, though as Venables said there’s, “an emergency.”