2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: In 2013 the Clemson Tigers matched their win total from 2012, earning back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history. Dabo Swinney has been charged with keeping Clemson among the nation's elite and done just that, earning top 10 finishes in both 2012 and 2013.
A potent offense was the driving force for Clemson, led by quarterback Tahj Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Boyd finished up his career in Death Valley as the ACC's career leader in TD passes (107) and TDs responsible for (133), while finishing second all-time in passing yards (11,904). In just three seasons, Watkins finished second on the ACC's list of career receptions (240).
Last season opened with a bang, as the Tigers jumped right into the fray with a grueling, but satisfying 38-35 victory over SEC power Georgia. The team added five double-digit victories after that, four of which came in conference play, topping NC State (26-14), Wake Forest (56-7), Syracuse (49-14) and Boston College (24-14) in succession.
That set up a showdown of undefeated heavyweights, as Clemson played host to Florida State on Oct. 19, with much more than the ACC Atlantic Division lead at stake. In the end however, the game turned into a rout for the visitors, as FSU blew out the Tigers 51-14 and steam-rolled its way to the national championship and undefeated season.
As for the Tigers, they picked up the pieces from that loss, posting four more impressive victories over the likes of Maryland (40-27), Virginia (59-10), Georgia Tech (55-31) and the Citadel (52-6), before dropping the regular- season finale to arch rival South Carolina in Columbia (31-17).
Still, at 11-2 overall and 7-1 in ACC play, Clemson found its way to a BCS Bowl, earning a bid to the 2014 Orange Bowl, where the Tigers put an exclamation point on another tremendous season with a 40-35 victory over Ohio State.
OFFENSE: There is simply no sugar coating the fact that Clemson needs to find an offensive identity in 2014. Gone are Boyd and Watkins, along with five other starters from a unit that averaged 40.2 points and 507.7 yards per game.
First and foremost on Swinney's to-do-list is to find himself a quarterback that can keep things rolling. Senior Cole Stoudt will get the first crack at the job after completing almost 80 percent of his passes in his limited work a year ago. Stoudt fought off freshman Deshaun Watson for the spot in the spring.
Stoudt has patiently waited his turn and the hope is for that patience to pay off in 2014 according to Swinney.
"I'm proud of Cole, first of all, and how he's prepared every week for the past three years to be ready to be the starter. He's never complained. He's been very patient. And then he had to come out this spring and he had to win the job, and he won the job this spring. I think we couldn't have a guy more prepared to be the starter in his first game than Cole Stoudt, but just because he has excellent experience to draw upon, and when he's played, he's played very well, and because of that he has a confidence that most first-time starters may not have, and then the fact that he won the quarterback competition this spring, which was a tough competition. So I think he's very confident."
Making the transition under center a bit more difficult is the fact that Clemson must also replace WRs Watkins (101 receptions, 1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (42 receptions, 828 yards, seven TDs).
Adam Humphries (41 receptions, 483 yards, two TDs) is the top returning receiver, although the team is expecting junior Charone Peake (6-2, 205) to return after missing most of 2013 with a torn ACL.
The ground game, which accounted for over 175 yards per game in 2013, must replace 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell. The team may go young here, with redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman, while junior Zac Brooks figures to get touches as well.
The offensive line will need to do some shuffling around as well, as the team must replace All-ACC first-teamer Brandon Thomas at tackle. Junior Isaiah Battle (6-7, 280) is an ultra-athletic guy out on the edge, who could fill the void after getting four starts a year ago. Fellow junior Ryan Norton started all 13 games at center last season and is an anchor in the middle.
DEFENSE: The Clemson defense performed well a year ago, allowing just 356.7 yards per game and was particularly stingy against the pass (201.0 ypg). A lot of that had to do with a ferocious pass rush that recorded 38 sacks on the season. With seven starters returning from 2013, there is every reason to believe in this unit once again.
It certainly helps that First-Team All-American Vic Beasley returned to school, despite getting high grades from the NFL. The 6-3, 255-pound senior is a force coming off the edge, recording 13 sacks and 10 TFL a year ago.
Swinney knows what he has in Beasley.
"Well, I just think he's a great player that came back. He chose to come back, you know, and he's not coming back to just kind of go through the motions. I mean, he's coming back to be a great player, so he's highly motivated. He wants to be a top-15 pick, and he was probably a second round pick last year, so he's come back to really improve his stock and to improve his game, so he has a lot to prove."
Beasley will not go it alone, as there is plenty of depth up front. He will be joined up front by the likes of senior tackles Grady Jarrett (83 tackles, 9.0 TFL, two sacks) and DeShawn Williams (37 tackles), junior tackle D.J. Reader (43 tackles, three sacks), senior end Corey Crawford (52 tackles, 7.5 TFL, three sacks) and sophomore end Shaq Lawson (freshman all-american honors with 35 tackles, 6.0 TFL, four sacks). Clemson's defensive line, thanks to its depth, should be one of the best units in the country.
The linebacking corps will once again be spearheaded by veteran middle linebacker Stephone Anthony (131 tackles, 9.5 TFL, four sacks), who led Clemson in tackles a year ago.
The secondary must replace last year's starters at cornerback, but does get senior safety Robert Smith (79 tackles, one INT) back, as well as sophomore safety Jayron Kearse (55 tackles, four INT), who made a big impact as a freshman, despite starting just three games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Tigers scored a lot of points last season and place kicker Chandler Catanzaro had his share, going 60-of-61 on PATs, while converting 13- of-14 field-goal attempts on the season. He is gone and his likely replacement is junior Ammon Lakip, who was 1-of-2 in field-goal tries a year ago. Punter Bradley Pinion averaged just under 40 yards per punt last season and does return to the fold. He also had 38 touchbacks on 78 kickoffs.
OUTLOOK: The team's run of 11 victories in a season may come to an end this year. A pair of grueling SEC opponents in Georgia and South Carolina won't be easy. The team starts the campaign once again with the Bulldogs, this time in Athens, and opens ACC play two games later at defending national champion Florida State.
A slow start could have Clemson at 1-2 towards the end of September and a loss in Tallahassee will once again have Clemson playing from behind in the ACC's Atlantic Division. Still, the Tigers should start to find a rhythm after that.
The non-conference slate consists of Georgia, SC State, Georgia State and South Carolina and at worst, the team goes 2-2. ACC road games include the aforementioned Seminoles, followed by tilts at Boston College, at Wake Forest and at Georgia Tech. ACC home games consist of North Carolina, NC State, Louisville and Syracuse.
While 11 wins may be tough to match, a 10-win season is there for the taking.