Philadelphia, PA – Despite winning their first ACC title in 20 years, the thing the 2011 Clemson Tigers are most remembered for is the 70-33 shellacking they took at the hands of the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl.
While judging a team's entire season on one game may seem a bit unfair, the fact that the Tigers came up lame in their finale, with the eyes of the nation fixed upon them, is unfortunately the lasting impression that has permeated the Clemson community since that fateful January night in south Florida.
With that said, it is the job of head coach Dabo Swinney, his staff and players to turn the page and look ahead to even bigger and brighter things as the 2012 season looms on the horizon.
Swinney is entering his fourth full season (fifth overall), and he has amassed a record of 29-19 thus far. His teams have won nearly twice as many ACC games as they have lost (19-10), and they have appeared in two ACC title tilts -- losing to Georgia Tech (39-34) in 2009, and topping Virginia Tech (38-10) in 2011. Overall, the Tigers have won 18 conference crowns, and they have one national championship to their credit, that coming back in 1981.
Clemson has just one bowl win in four opportunities under Swinney's watchful eye, and the Orange Bowl massacre still stings for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the Tigers now own the dubious distinction of yielding the most points in a quarter (35), half (49) and game (70) in the 109- year history of all college football bowl games.
After the embarrassing loss, Swinney wanted it known that the game certainly wasn't indicative of the kind of team he has, "Well, obviously we're a better football team than how we played tonight, and you know, it is what it is. The season is over, and the biggest thing I said in there is that I love them, and we've got to live with this the whole off-season."
Clemson returns just 14 total starters, but with a new voice on defense in former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, and a recruiting class considered to be among the best in the ACC, the 2012 Tigers could be every bit as good, if not better than last year's group.
Clearly a lot hinges on the defense playing better (31.5 ppg allowed in 2011), but pressure is also on Andre Ellington and the Clemson run game. Ellington is one of the best RBs in the conference, but he has been hampered by injuries during his career and needs to be on the field for the Tiger offense to run at optimal efficiency. Despite missing time last year, Ellington still managed to rush for 1,178 yards and 11 TDs.
Also in the cross hairs of opposing defenses will be QB Tajh Boyd, who threw for more than 3,800 yards and 33 TDs in 2011. Having a guy like star WR Sammy Watkins (82 receptions, 1,219 yards, 12 TDs) tracking down your aerial offerings would help any signal-caller, and he will be counted on once again to make plays down field after becoming only the third true freshman to be named a First-Team AP All-American. Fellow WR DeAndre Hopkins (72 receptions, 978 yards, five TDs) is another of Clemson's offensive weapons who should have a big year, provided of course that everyone stays healthy.
Swinney, who recently received a contract extension that is expected to keep him on the sidelines through the 2017 season, has gotten the attention of several top-notch players in the region, most notably consensus No. 1 national recruit, DE Robert Nkemdiche, who has agreed to play for the Tigers beginning in 2013. Landing a player of Nkemdiche's caliber is a real feather in Swinney's cap, and a clear indication that Clemson has raised the bar in the ACC and is serious about securing even greater national recognition.
In announcing Swinney's contract extension, Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips spoke highly about the team's accomplishments over the last few years, "In a short period of time, coach Swinney has taken us to two Atlantic Division titles, had two top-10 recruiting classes, two top-25 seasons, and won an ACC championship in a season when the league was strong enough to have two teams selected for BCS bowls for the first time."
A 2012 schedule that includes SEC foes Auburn to open the regular season and bitter rival South Carolina to close it, seems manageable. Opening conference play at Florida State on September 22 will be difficult, but most of the Tigers' toughest league bouts (Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, NC State) will take place at home.
Getting off to a fast start will help alleviate any lingering effects the Clemson fan base has from the nightmare that ended last season. While winning the ACC again won't be easy, the Tigers have the ability to do just that as long as Venables tightens things up on the defensive side of the ball, and the offense performs up to its massive potential.