SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #12 Clemson

The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Today’s focus is on #12 Clemson.

Team: Clemson Tigers

Location: Clemson, S. Car. 

SQ Ranking: 12th

2014 Record: 10-3

Finish in AP Poll: 15th

Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (8th year)

Key Arrivals: OL Mitch Hyatt, DL Christian Wilkins, DL Albert Huggins, WR Deon Cain

Key Departures: LB Stephone Anthony, DB Robert Smith, DL Vic Beasley, QB Cole Stoudt

Previewing the Clemson Offense: With seven returning starters, Clemson looks to continue the hot-hand they had during the final weeks of the season last year. Marquee wins over South Carolina and a thumping of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl have put the Tigers in prime position to fire out of the starting gate.

Leading the calvary will be sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. Last season, Watson and Stoudt battled over the QB position for the first few games. In the end, Stoudt was benched during the Florida State game, and Watson became the go-to QB. The week after the heartbreaking overtime loss to the Seminoles, Watson shined against North Carolina by uncorking 435 yards and six touchdowns. 

Ultimately, Watson was 4-1 last year but was sidelined with an ACL tear after the regular season finale against South Carolina – this was after Watson injured his ACL two weeks prior to the game against the Gamecocks. 

Watson has the toughness to lead the Tigers. If he stays healthy, he will easily shatter the 1,466 yards he threw last year, and will probably eclipse the 2,000 yard mark. 

"It felt good to be back at it" — In Depth with Deshaun Watson after the scrimmage. #Clemson http://t.co/wrVQEZHiaK pic.twitter.com/ujXJJOpMA1

— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) August 12, 2015

Watson is the lifeline for Clemson's offense.

Watson's passes will mainly go to junior Mike Williams and sophomore Artavis Scott. Williams led the team last year with 1,030 yards; while Scott led the team with eight touchdown receptions. These two will give Watson the chance to break 2,000 passing yards. Additionally, if the passing game can get established earlier in games, Clemson's offense has the potential to be the best in the ACC. Stagnant offense hurt the Tigers last year against Florida State. If they can start off hot, they could easily have five to seven games in which they produce over 450 yards of offense.

If in the (very unlikely) event Watson has a drop off in production, the Tigers rushing game will pick up the slack. This year, the running core brings back its top three rushers in sophomore Wayne Gallman, graduate C.J. Davidson and sophomore Adam Choice.

Gallman led the team in rushing last season with 804 yards. Now with a little more experience, expect Gallman to hit the 1,000 yard mark – especially if he can turn on the motors in the early season matches against Wofford and Appalachian State. 

In the mid-2000's, Clemson had C.J. Spiller and James Davis, dubbed as "Thunder and Lightning", racking up the yardage. Now, with Gallman, Davidson and Choice, the Tigers have a chance to recreate the magic of yesteryear.

Ultimately, Clemson's offense has the real possibility to produce a 2,000 yard passer in Watson, mutliple 1,000 yard receivers in Williams (again) and Scott, and a 1,000 yard rusher in Gallman. 

Previewing the Clemson Defense: The main issue for the Tigers will be the inexperience at defense. This year, the Tigers bring back just three starters–-the fewest in seven years. They lose Beasley, who was an All-American, and Grady Jarrett on the frontline. By no stretch of the imagination are these small shoes to fill. The Tiger defense was the reason they throttled Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, and shutdown the Ohio State Buckeyes two years ago in the Orange Bowl. 

At times, Clemson can pack a tour de force performance on offense and defense. An example was against Oklahoma last season.

This year, junior linebacker Ben Boulware and safety Jayron Kearse will have to hold down the fort in their respective part of the field. If the Tiger's become successful at stifling the passing game and halting the rushing attack, Boulware and Kearse will be the reason. While both come in as juniors, they are now leaders of an inexperienced defense.

As mentioned numerous times before: defense wins games. Just by looking at the past four years under the Swinney regime, the Tigers have crossed the 10-win border. However, in each of those years, Clemson brought back at least five starters on defense. 

The defense will need to grow up fast, because their third game of the season will be a Thursday night game against Louisville. And, to make matters more tricky, they play the Cardinals on the road. Luckily, Dab o's squad has a bye week after their trip to Louisville, giving an added day of rest for Notre Dame. With the Irish being touted as a playoff contender this year, the Tigers don't have that much time to gain experience. These next few weeks in camp will be critical, if the Tigers want to get back in the hunt for ACC championship.

A place where the Tigers have faulted collectively is on the road. Last season, all three losses came away from Death Valley – and that was with an experienced defense. This season, road games will be the trouble spot again. On top of Louisville, Clemson will have to travel to Miami (FL) and South Carolina. All three games are up in the air, and that's not counting the showdown with Florida State at home.

Three Key Games

1. Clemson vs. Florida State (Nov. 7) - Last season's matchup in Tallahassee, FL. was probably the biggest heartbreak I witnessed all season. Clemson let Florida State back into the game and the 'Noles escaped with a win. The Tigers have dropped three in a row to the Seminoles, and allowed their nemesis to collect multiple ACC championships. Even if Dabo's squad is battered at this point in the season, this senior class has to beat Florida State.

Florida State survived Clemson last year, and literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

2. Clemson vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 3) - The Fighting Irish will be the first real home game of the season inside Death Valley. But that's not the reason why this game is No.2 on the list. Clemson gets an extra week to prepare for the Irish, and to sort out any inexperience kinks in the defense and offense. Extra time looking at tape, extra time to study the plays, and extra time to devise a way to keep the momentum up. A loss here is pivotal, as Georgia Tech comes to visit right after the Golden Domers. The potential for three losses in a row is real if Clemson can't win on Oct.3.

 3. Clemson at. Louisville (Sept. 17) - This is where we will find out how experienced this team is. Louisville has the advantage of being at home under the lights, and will bring their A-game against the Tigers. If Watson can get the offense rolling, Clemson will be competitive. However, if the defense collapses, it could be a long night away from home. As I said before, Dabo gets a bye week after this game, and it will be important to solve any problems that come out of the Louisville game – win or lose.

Final Analysis: I've been torn with how Clemson will end. Part of me believes this team will find a way to win 10+ games, while part of me thinks this team will go 8-4. Out of the five games the Tigers will play in October, expect them to lose at least one. 

Even though Florida State is rebuilding, I think the Seminoles will eek out a win in Death Valley. Don't get me wrong, I think Clemson will be competitive this year: they won't get blown out of the water in any of the their games, but they'll also end the regular season at 9-3.

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