The college football season is over, and the long wait until Labor Day weekend and college football begins again. So now we look back at the season that was, and look ahead to the possibilities 2014 holds.
2013 – Positives
The season began and ended on a high note. The prime time win over Georgia was one of the biggest wins in Death Valley I’ve experienced. Sure, the Bulldogs dropped off later in the season, but not until they lost an obscene amount of talent to serious injuries in the Tennessee game. Up until that point, UGA was 4-1 with wins over South Carolina and LSU. Although the ’11 ACCCG and this season’s Orange Bowl may be more notable victories because of what was at stake, the healthy UGA team that took the field on Labor Day weekend is likely the best squad Clemson has beat since knocking off a 3rd ranked FSU and a 6th ranked Tennessee in 2003.
Clemson ended the year by winning their first BCS bowl in the BCS era. Clemson has three total Orange Bowl wins in five appearances dating back to a 1950 Frank Howard win over Miami. Only Howard, Danny Ford, and now Dabo Swinney have ever won an Orange Bowl at Clemson.
The Tigers won nine other games, all by double-digits, as they took care of business in all the “should win” games. NCSU and Boston College caused a bit of a scare, but winning these games shouldn’t be taken for granted. Seeing Oregon and Stanford stumble against teams like Arizona and Utah underscores this point. Clemson players and coaches have done a good job to move this program beyond the point of expecting the annual head scratcher.
This season also saw arguably the greatest wide receiver and QB in school history make their mark. Sammy Watkins broke the school records for career receptions and receiving yards. He saved the best for last as he exploded for 227 yards in Clemson’s Orange Bowl triumph. He projects as a top 10 pick in the NFL draft. Tajh Boyd broke ACC records for total touchdowns and passing touchdowns. The latter was held by Philip Rivers, the great NC State and now Chargers QB, but Boyd broke his passing TD record with one less season as a starter. With his 505 total yards and six total TDs in the Orange Bowl win, he tied Rodney Williams record for most wins by a Clemson QB with 32.
According to a poll conducted on Shakin’ the Southland, 66% of Clemson fans considered this a good year.
2013 – Negatives
The season wasn’t perfect though. After rising to #3 in the polls, Clemson got knocked around by a superior FSU team. The 51 points they allowed was the most ever in Death Valley. Because FSU turned out to be the best team in the country, anger with the FSU loss and failure to win the division is nothing more than irrational anger that Clemson didn’t win the National Championship (you can’t be furious every time Clemson doesn’t win the National Championship). That said, opponents should never score half-a-hundred in Death Valley. That can’t happen. Clemson didn’t show up on a big stage, and that’s not acceptable.
After that brutal loss, Clemson gutted out a win in Maryland and crushed an awful Virginia team in Charlotteville. They returned home for a Thursday night tilt against Georgia Tech and picked a satisfying win with a dominant performance against their ACC Coastal rival. They played well on senior day against Citadel and then laid a giant Gamecock egg in Columbia.
Clemson had 34 more yards of offense than the Gamecocks, but ate 32 more penalty yards, surrendered 10 (of 19) third down conversions, and worst of all, committed six turnovers in an inexplicable fifth straight loss to their in-state rivals. Sammy Watkins threw the only interception of his career on the opening drive. Martavis Bryant brushed up against Adam Humphries causing him to muff a punt which South Carolina recovered. Finally, on what looked to be a legacy drive in which Tajh was leading the team down the field to tie the game late, he was stripped and the Cocks recovered. The defense came through with a three-and-out, but Humphries fumbled on the punt return and sealed the win for the evil genius, Steve Spurrier.
Clemson was lucky to get the Orange Bowl invitation after that choke job loss in Columbia. Fortunately, FSU played in the National Championship which opened up a slot in the Bowl. South Carolina was not one of the top two teams in the SEC, so they were again sent to the Citrus (Capital One) Bowl. Although they finished #4, they never seemed to have a top 10 moment (at least according to ESPN).
According to a poll conducted on Shakin’ the Southland, 16% of Clemson fans considered this a bad year. The last 19% considered this season to be a marginal success–not quite a good year, but not a bad one either.
Positional Breakdown & Spring Camp Questions
One other downer on the season was Charone Peake’s knee injury. He seemed poised for a breakout season until he suffered an unfortunate fluke injury during a non-contact practice drill. With Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant both headed to the NFL, Clemson needs a healthy Charone Peake this season. Mike Williams will also need to step up and contribute. Williams showed promise this year, but was guilty of some incorrect routes and at least one that lead directly to an interception. At 6’5″, he should continue to improve and be a very effective player in Martavis Bryant’s old role.
T.J. Green, a rising sophomore, will vie for playing time as will four-star early enrollees Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester. Trevion Thompson an incoming freshman from Durham, NC has also committed and would be the fourth four-star incoming WR. That’s the type of insane talent FSU pulled in to build the excellent WR corps they rode to a title this season. This bodes very well for the future.
Finally, Germone Hopper and Adam Humphries should again man the slot position competently. Charone Peake’s health and Mike Williams’ progression will be important for this position, lest T.J. Green or freshman be heavily relied upon. For all the star power they lost, plenty of depth remains and the future is bright. It’ll be interesting to see who redshirts and who makes an impact.
Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly, and Deshaun Watson will compete for the starting job this season. The stating the QB in Chad Morris’ system must have the capability to run, which would seem to favor Kelly or Watson, however Stoudt is the most experienced and arguably the most accurate passer (79.7% compared to 58.8% from Chad Kelly). I expect this to be a true three-way battle.
It would certainly be simplest if Stoudt won hands down and was the clear-cut QB this season before Watson took over next year (Kelly would likely transfer in that scenario), butI get the sense that Kelly and Stoudt will share time, Watson will redshirt, and next year we’ll have a competition between Kelly and Watson. Honestly, projecting this early is nothing, but guesswork, but it is reassuring that there is plenty of talent available to replace Tajh Boyd.
This is where I worry about the offense. Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley, the two best O-linemen on the team, have departed, and Gifford Timothy has left the game due to injuries. Where does that leave us?
Isiah Battle should start at one tackle position. Ryan Norton and Jay Guillermo manned the center position this year. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if one of them shifted over so they could both start. After that you’re looking at Shaq Anthony, David Beasley, Kalon Davis, and Reid Webster.
This is a spot where struggles are not as easily identified. Oftentimes a bad year by a QB is the result of a porous line, yet he takes the blame. Hopefully that’s not the case this season.
Middle linebacker and leading tackler Stephone Anthony decided to return for his senior season. It seems to be a wise decision (especially if he bought draft insurance, which school really should be allowed to pay for) as he stands to move up significantly in draft projections. His play in the Orange Bowl put him on the radar. A full season of play at that level would rocket him towards the top of the draft.
Spencer Shuey has graduated, as has his counterpart across the field, Quandon Christian. Fortunately, Clemson has good depth to replace them.
Kellen Jones transferred over from Oklahoma when Venables took over the defense. After sitting out his first year per transfer rules, he tore his ACL at NC State and missed most of last season. He is primed to return from injury and compete for playing time. Tony Steward, a former Rivals five-star (and rivals is conservative when they give our their ratings) will compete for playing time in his fourth year in the program. He tore his ACL in his freshman season, but did not redshirt (and should have), and hasn’t played much since returning. Hopefully he can put his injury woes behind him and make a splash.
Dorian O’Daniel was a four-star linebacker out of Maryland in the class of 2013 that received offers from Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina. He will compete for playing time, as will T.J. Burrell, a redshirt sophomore from Goose Creek, SC. He saw a little action in 2013 getting a tackle in the UGA game and should see much more this season. Between all the depth, this position should be serviceable, though a step back would not be surprising.
This, along with safety are the positions that worry me about the defense (there were no real personnel changes at safety, so I haven’t written about it). Our best corner, Bashaud Breeland left early for the NFL and senior Darius Robinson exhausted his eligibility, leaving Clemson dangerously thin at CB.
Martin Jenkins “played with one hand” all season due to injury and will return healthy. He broke a thumb and a tooth in an early season game, but didn’t exit the field. He’s one tough kid and you’ve gotta like that. Still, the one people will be most excited about is Mackensie Alexander. He’s a five-star from last year’s class, but was sidelined all season with injury and ended up redshirting. Clemson needs him to become a reliable starter at CB.
After those two, Garry Peters returns for his senior season. He’s not spectacular, but a reliable veteran is sorely needed. Rising sophomore Adrian Baker will also see his fair share of playing time. With the defensive line the CBs have to play with, they shouldn’t have to cover wide receivers for long.
Finally, we end with the what will be Clemson’s strength this season. Who would have thought Clemson’s three best players (Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony) would be on defense, and two on the defensive line? Vic Beasley coming back for his senior year gives the Tigers arguably the best defensive line in college football. Across from Beasley is another senior DE in Corey Crawford. Shaq Lawson made an impact as a freshman and will provide depth at defensive end. After redshirting last season, Ebenezer Ogundeko, a top recruit from New York, will contribute as a backup.
In the middle, Grady Jarrett, a rising junior, will return and look to build on a season in which he had 83 tackles and 11 tackles for loss (TFL) as part of a defense that was second in the nation in TFL. Next to him, Josh Watson, who previously announcing his intention to enter the NFL draft, had a change of heart and decided to return for his senior season.
Clemson boasts more depth at DT than any other position. In addition to Jarrett and Watson, DeShawn Williams, Carlos Watkins (returning from injuries suffered in a car accident), Kevin Dodd, Tavaris Barnes, D.J. Reader (who doubles as a Clemson baseball player), and the redshirt freshman Hawaiian Scott Pagano give Clemson enough talent to rotate players on the line and wear out opposing offensive lines. This position is so good, it would not be at all surprising if five or six players entered the NFL draft after the season.
Reasonable 2014 Expectations and Beyond
Programs really get tested when a bevy of talent departs. Many programs can put together a nice run with a group of talented players (i.e., Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins), but the bigger question is can they sustain it once the stars depart. That said, the recruiting has remained at a high level and the defense is poised for their best season under Swinney’s leadership. The program appears to be one on the rise.
Looking specifically at the 2014 schedule, you have three challenging road games, three challenging home games, and six games Clemson has no excuse to not win.
Road Battles: @Georgia, @Florida State, @Georgia Tech
Georgia loses a lot of talent to matriculation, but gains almost as much back with players returning from injury. It’ll be extremely challenging to find a win in Athens. Not as tough as Tallahassee though. FSU should be excellent once again. I originally pegged 2014 as the year of the Seminole, and just because that came in 2013 doesn’t mean it still won’t hold true in 2014. Finally Georgia Tech is a tricky opponent, at least when they play in Bobby Dodd. They look to be on the decline and lose their starting QB, Vad Lee, to transfer, but Clemson hasn’t won in Bobby Dodd since 2003 and is just 4-7 vs the Jackets since then. Clemson dominated GT this year in Death Valley so maybe this is the year they pick up a win in Atlanta. I expect Clemson to win one of these three road games.
Home Battles: Louisville, North Carolina, South Carolina
Louisville joins the conference and gives the ACC another quality team. I expect a Clemson win, but it won’t be easy against a Bobby Petrino team. UNC will look to bring momentum into next season as they finished by winning five of their final six games. Again, Clemson will be favored, but a win is very far from a given. Finally, you have the Palmetto Bowl and Clemson has their last two at home against the Cocks so it’s hard to predict a win. Clemson should win two of these three games.
Other Six: NC State, Syracuse, SC State, Georgia State, @BC, @Wake
These last six should all be wins. The road games come against what could be the two worst teams in the ACC and the others are against inferior competition in Death Valley. Hopefully Clemson can hang half-a-hundred on the gender neutral citrus fruits of Syracuse again. They’ve dedicated a lot of time to manufacturing a rivalry, so one must dominate it. I expect Clemson to win all six of these, but a clean sweep shouldn’t be taken for granted. These projections leave Clemson with nine wins if they sweep these six games, eight if they drop one. A full season preview with a 1,000 simulations of each game will be posted closer to the season.
I shot a video on these topics with MarkRogersTV that attempts to tackle the topics discussed above. It is embedded below, but first let me note that we’re just slightly outdated on the video, because as we were filming, Vic Beasley announced his decision to return for his senior year.
Here are time stamps for each topic so you can jump around to topics of interest. Enjoy and thanks for reading!
- 0:50 - Success/Failures of 2013 and Orange Bowl Poll
- 3:44 – Losses to Graduation/NFL
- 6:19 – QB Battle
- 7:24 – Potential Issues on O-Line
- 8:33 – Way Too Early Projections for 2014
- 10:30 – State of the Program