There's never a wrong time to evolve into a top-10 contender, obviously, but the best era of Clemson football since the Danny Ford days of the late '80s unfortunately has been met with two daunting hurdles: 1) the resurgence of division rival Florida State as a national power, and 2) the emergence of in-state rival South Carolina as a consistent SEC frontrunner after decades of futility. And thus this golden age of Clemson comes with obvious caveats: Florida State is king of the ACC, and Dabo Swinney can't beat Steve Spurrier. Clemson can neither be the flagship program of its conference, nor of its state, so if there somehow is such thing as bad timing, perhaps this is it.
But just because Clemson's NFL attrition makes it look like its chances of overcoming its rivals are becoming even less likely, that doesn't mean 2014 can't actually be the year the Tigers reverse their fortunes. It's a common trap in college football offseasons, especially when evaluating a program with a checkered history, to become fixated on what's leaving instead of what's returning. Undoubtedly, there's reason to be concerned for a team that loses an acclaimed three-year starting quarterback in Tajh Boyd, arguably the best wideout in college football in Sammy Watkins, a big wideout with upside in Martavis Bryant, a thousand-yard back in Roderick McDowell and an All-ACC left tackle in Brandon Thomas.
Few teams are capable of adequately replacing that sort of attrition and maintaining an 11-2 record; few times in history have the Tigers in particular amassed such talent, let alone had to replace it. And because Clemson has built its current reputation on explosive offense, losing so much high-level talent is hard to ignore.
But in another way, the timing may actually be right, because the Tigers defense is finally ready to pick up the slack.
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Three things saved Clemson's 2014 season well before it began: 1) the return of Chad Morris; 2) the return of Brent Venables; 3) the return of Vic Beasley.
The first item ensures that the Tigers can still be in decent shape offensively, if not as productive as the last two seasons, when they finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring. Morris, 45, is following a similar path as Gus Malzahn, as the longtime high school coach who got called up to an FBS job as an offensive coordinator (they both even had brief stops at Tulsa) and is surely on his way to a head coaching job soon. Even after only four years at the FBS level, it's still sort of surprising that Morris hasn't landed a top job yet, as he especially appeared ripe for the taking this offseason. But given what was lost, this year might be an even better opportunity to showcase his coaching acumen and build his résumé.
The sport has few better offensive minds, and Morris does a phenomenal job scheming to get the ball to his playmakers. Sure, it's helped to have players like Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, but Morris put them in a position to succeed with his style of up-tempo spread attack that is built around creating mismatches in space.
Dabo Swinney has done an underrated job as a head coach, as a strong recruiter and program CEO who has surrounded himself with terrific (and, not coincidentally, highly paid) assistant coaching talent. Not only is Morris still there, but he lured Venables from Oklahoma as his defensive coordinator to fix the unit that famously gave up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl in the 2011 season. Venables, 43, is a Bill Snyder/Bob Stoops disciple who may also be heading toward a head coaching job too, but for now, he's still at Clemson, ready to elevate the defense into a formidable unit capable of keeping the Tigers at their current 11-win pace. After ranking 71st in yards per play allowed in 2011, Clemson held steady at 69th in his first year, then shot all the way up to a respectable 23rd last year under Venables' leadership, with a disruptive, albeit inconsistent, front seven. Only four opponents out of 13 even cracked 400 yards against them, and while they gave up big plays, their attacking style -- a national-best 123 tackles for loss -- up front knocked offenses off schedule and allowed them to finish fifth nationally in defensive third-down percentage.
Which brings us to Beasley. Through six games last year, no defensive player was better, as he somehow upstaged Palmetto State neighbor Jadeveon Clowney, and everyone else for that matter. He had two sacks in the high-profile opening win over Georgia, then three sacks and a key forced fumble in the Thursday night game against N.C. State, making him a breakout star and a nationally known name. But ultimately he finished with nine sacks in the first six games before Florida State, zero in that blowout loss and only four in the final six games afterward. Beasley could have gone pro, but he opted to return to Clemson to try to recapture that All-America level production from the first half of the season. Clemson surely needs it, because the season may hinge on his ability to get into opposing backfields consistently -- or at least draw enough double-teams to open the door for his teammates.
Whereas the Swinney era has been tied to the offense-first Tajh Boyd era, now it's time for the senior Beasley to shine in leading a cast of talented defenders. The veteran group also includes a stellar tackle in senior Grady Jarrett, a 245-pound middle linebacker in Stephone Anthony and a potential breakout player in freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, a five-star recruit who redshirted last season after dealing with injury problems in fall camp. The secondary has been problematic for a few years, and it doesn't help that top corner Bashaud Breeland left for the pros, but Alexander's high celing combined with the pressure the front can get on opposing quarterbacks is a recipe for success. In this modern, pass-first era, nothing can mask deficiencies elsewhere like a productive pass rush, and with Boyd, Watkins and Bryant gone, that's what will take center stage for Clemson, and maybe even make that West Virginia debacle look like ancient history.
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That 70-pointer may be irrelevant now, but then that dreadful October loss to the Seminoles remains fresh in everyone's minds. Unfortunately, this year's schedule does Clemson no favors. An improved, aggressive defense can keep the Tigers afloat, but it's the wrong year to be breaking in a new quarterback: Not only do the Tigers open with a return trip to a talented Georgia team -- which, to be fair, is also starting a new QB -- but the Tigers go on the road to Florida State in their third game, then host a rising North Carolina squad to close September. Three of Clemson's toughest four games happen to be three of its first four games.
True freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson has seemingly unlimited potential and appears to be the future of the position for Clemson and a perfect fit for Morris' offense, but his spring as an early enrollee was cut short by a collarbone injury. While he'll be fine for practice in August, it remains to be seen if any clarity will develop in the quarterback competition with touted sophomore Chad Kelly and senior Cole Stoudt until late August, or even into that early-season gauntlet against an SEC favorite, the ACC Atlantic favorite and the possible ACC Coastal favorite. There's reason to believe Watson can be a star early in his career, but August/September may be asking too much.
Still, there's no need to panic. The Tigers did win the ACC title in 2011, and they earned a bid to the Orange Bowl last season, where they beat Ohio State. They haven't beaten hated South Carolina since 2008, but they've still managed to amass severel notable wins in the last few years, including FSU, Auburn and Virginia Tech in 2011; LSU in 2012; and pre-injury-raveged Georgia and Ohio State last season. Once a frequent disappointment, Clemson has morphed into a strong, sustainable program capable of challenging for the top 10 more often than not, under its current regime.
We will learn a lot about Clemson's 2014 fate quickly this year, thanks to the front-loaded schedule. But by the end of the season, it's easy to imagine Clemson re-emerging as a power, one capable of ending this mini-streak of losses to South Carolina, which means all Clemson might need to do is win just one of those three big games at the start of the season to return to the Orange Bowl. Given the quality of defense that's returning, that might not be so much to ask. Win two, and suddenly Clemson as a playoff contender isn't so far-fetched.
Of course, until Clemson beats South Carolina and Florida State in the same season, it'll still be running from its notorious reputation for failing to meet expectations. But the 2014 season, with expectations in check, is actually the perfect time to exceed them.
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