2015 Clemson Football Season Preview

We’re inching ever so close to football season, and Shakin the Southland has a huge day tentatively set for Monday, August 31st with dozens of Clemson Football Season Preview articles being published on that date. For my part, I have an in-depth season preview with input from bloggers across multiple SB Nation ACC blogs. Here, I give a sneak preview of a few parts of that article. You’ll have to visit ShakintheSouthland.com on or after August 31st for the full version that includes input from other writers, but for now, I hope this holds you over!

The 2015 Clemson football schedule is particularly interesting this year. While there are a handful of tough games including Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Florida State at home as well as road trips to Louisville and South Carolina, none are as tough individually as the 2014 battles with Georgia in Athens or Florida State in Tallahassee. Overall, there are more realistic opportunities to trip up, but no hurdles as high as some on the 2014 schedule.

Now we’ll take a look at each game, estimate the Tigers’ win likelihood in each one, and then wrap it all up.

Wofford

Clemson is 11-3 all-time vs. Wofford, but hasn’t lost one in the series since 1933. Since college football split into two divisions in 1978, Clemson has gone 29-0 against FCS foes. Wofford won just six games last season, so it’s hard to see the Tigers’ perfect record against FCS opponents ending here.

The Terriers run a “triple-option or ‘Wingbone’ offensive scheme that averaged 298 rushing yards per game last season (but only 69 passing yards/game). They’ll do their best to play keep away, but Clemson’s defenses should be able to get the ball back better than the 2011 unit that allowed 27 points to the Terrirers. Wofford won’t slow down a Watson-led offense enough to keep it competitive. 

My Win Likelihood: 100%

Appalachian State

The competition stiffens in week two as Clemson takes on the Mountaineers. No longer an FCS member, App State now has more scholarships and therefore more depth than did their famous 2007 team that knocked off #4 Michigan. They joined the Sun Belt along with Georgia Southern replacing schools that Conference USA lured away (because Conference USA had just been scalped the the AAC).

The Mountaineers return 20 starters, the most in the nation. I’m certainly not panicking about App State, but I do feel they’re more in-line with the the challenge level of a Wake Forest or Syracuse than Wofford. Underdog Dynasty gives some reasons for you to worry in there article here and ESPN’s FPI projects them to finish around 10-winsThis is a quality non-P5 school that Clemson can’t sleep on, but a focused effort will prevent this from being a close game.

My Win Likelihood: 95%

at Louisville

Louisville should take a step back from a year ago as they return only nine starters. Star WR DeVante Parker is now on the Miami Dolphins. Two offensive lineman were drafted in the third round (can you even imagine?). Their defense had six players drafted, including Thorpe Award winner Gerrod Holliman, who led the ACC with 14 interceptions.

So why should you worry?

The ACC did Clemson no favors by giving them a Thursday night road game in week three without the typical preceding bye week. Instead, they get a worthless bye after the weekday game, making for an especially long lay-off before Notre Dame.

The one-yard win last season seemed to prove that they can compete on our level. Now, traveling up there for the first time surely makes the task harder. Clemson Kicker Ammon Lakkip will be suspended. Add to that the odd scheduling making the travel day an important lost day of practice and Clemson is at a notable disadvantage. Reggie Bonnafon should own the QB position now and with further maturation they should see improved QB play. Bobby Petrino will have them well coached and the crowd should be rocking in what is by far their best home game (neither Auburn, FSU, nor Kentucky go to Louisville). Clemson will have the talent advantage, but this is will be an extremely tough road test. The Tigers will have to be relatively healthy, extremely focused, and not have to many breaks go against them.

My Win Likelihood: 54%

Notre Dame

Following the Tigers brutal 2014 loss to FSU, the Tigers regrouped and closed out the year 9-1. Notre Dame did quite the opposite. The Golden Domers entered Doak Campbell at 6-0 and left with a loss.They followed that with a 2-4 finish to end the season with five losses. The Irish allowed at least 28 points in each of their last eight games.

Things are looking up in South Bend though! They return 19 starters. Their first team defense lists all juniors and seniors! They start one sophomore on offense – rest are juniors and seniors. Malik Zaire, a former 4-star dual-threat QB, takes the helm with Everett Golson transferring to FSU. Zaire will have plenty of talented, experienced targets. As far as roster management and expectations, this is “the year” for Notre Dame.

With such talent and experience returning, it’s not a stretch to think they’ll improve and give Clemson a real challenge in their first trip to Death Valley since the 1977. From 2010-2014 Notre Dame has had a higher average star rating (Rivals) than Clemson with every single recruiting class. It’s easy to forget about other team’s talent when you have guys like Christian Wilkins, Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud, and Albert Huggins joining your program, but they’re very talented too and more experienced. They bring a veteran group of highly-recruited players into Clemson in a toss-up game that goes advantage Clemson due to the raucous Death Valley environment.

My Win Likelihood: 52%

Georgia Tech

Since joining the ACC, Georgia Tech has won 10+ games on four occasions. In the three occasions prior to 2014 (1990, 1998, and 2009) they’ve won an average of three fewer games in the succeeding season (1991: 8 wins, 1999: 8 wins, 2010: 6 wins). Coach Paul Johnson doesn’t seem overly impressed by his team so far in practice and seems to be tempering expectations. I’ll bite and say they regress by about three wins and finish with about eight wins in the regular season. I would not be surprising to see Tech take a step back in 2015, especially with their toughest in the ACC schedule (they play FSU, ND, Clemson, and UGA).

Given Clemson’s struggles against Georgia Tech, and the Yellow Jacket’s style of play, this matchup is always scary. Additionally, I’m a bit worried about facing the triple option with such a green defensive line, however I’m betting on the first team D-line saying healthy and Kevin Dodd panning out.

Last year’s game was looking like a big Tiger win before Watson went down with injury. If he and the key members on the offensive and defensive lines are healthy, this should be a Tiger win. The Tigers have little depth at those key positions, and Georgia Tech is exactly the team to exploit a weak spot or poor decision maker.

My Win Likelihood: 58%

Boston College

BC returns the fewest starters in the ACC (tied with Louisville), and doesn’t recruit at a particularly high level. The Eagles will break in a new QB behind an inexperienced offensive line. They return running back Jon Hilliman, and have made a living with a solid run game and plucky defense, but will there be consistent holes to run through with no offensive linemen returning? They also lose three off their defensive line. Unlike Clemson, it’s hard to imagine they’ve recruited enough depth to take those kind of losses in stride. They’re well coached and you certainly have to respect what Addazio has done there, but given their losses and the venue, Clemson should lock up a home win against the Eagles.

My Win Likelihood: 85%

at Miami

Sophomore QB Brad Kaaya gives the ‘Canes hope after a very nice freshman campaign. The returning QB threw for 3,198 yards and 26 TDs as a true freshman and improved throughout the year.as he threw nine of his 12 interceptions in the first six games. Now we’ll see if he can continue that progress behind an offensive line that lost three starters.

They lost all-time great RB Duke Johnson to the Browns and electric WR Phillip Dorsett to the Colts, but they recruit well at the skill positions and should be fine. The concern is primarily the O-line, which already was problematic before losing three starters. The defense allowed 30 points to Virginia and 35 to Pittsburgh as they collapsed down the stretch. They’re have to right the ship without star MLB Denzel Perryman, who is gone the NFL (Chargers).

The Hurricanes are obviously very talented, but they’ve proven time and time again that they don’t belong in the conversation with the top teams in the conference. Even on the road I believe the Tigers have a three-in-four chance to return home with the “W.” 

My Win Likelihood: 75%

at NC State

NC State has some firepower on offense with nine starters returning. Jacoby Brissett has proved to be a huge addition as a transfer from Florida. He’s an athletic QB who can throw on the run. Shadrach Thornton is one of the better running backs in the ACC and David Grinnage is solid at TE.

Conversely, their defense only brings back five starters from a unit that was not good as season ago. They allowed 30+ points in each of their losses including 56 to FSU, 41 to Clemson, and 30 to Louisville. It’s unfortunate they’re in the Atlantic, because they’re a clear #4 in the division. If they were in the Coastal, they may be favored to win it.

Clemson has won 10 of 11 in the series, but they haven’t all been pretty. This one has all the makings of 2012’s 62-48 shootout Tiger win in Death Valley. NC State doesn’t have the defensive prowess necessary to slow down an offense with a healthy O-line and Deshaun Watson, but they could score some points..

My Win likelihood: 85%

Florida State

If the 2013 beat down followed by the flukiest of losses in 2014 didn’t break your confidence… good for you. It’ll probably be a while before I “expect” a win over Florida State.

Still, the game is in Clemson and the Tigers do have a few roster advantages. Florida State landed Notre Dame transfer QB Everett Golson who certainly can be dynamic, but is turnover prone. Their other option, Sean Maguire, is very pedestrian. If Watson is healthy (if he’s not you can forget about this one), Clemson has a big advantage at QB.

At WR, Clemson boasts likely the best WR corps in the country. Mike Williams and Artavis Scott make an excellent duo. If Charone Peake can stay healthy, you’ve got three top-notch receivers. True freshmen Ray Ray McCloud and Deon Cain should be ridiculous in the two-deep – particularly by the time FSU rolls around – and there are other former 4-star receivers I haven’t even mentioned. Meanwhile, FSU lost their top two receiving threats and will rely on Travis Rudolph to carry their group.

Of course, we’re still talking about Florida State, and even when they have to look to youngsters to fill the void, we are almost always talking about a four or five star youngster.

Clemson’s #1 in the nation defense lost a lot. Their two best defensive linemen from 2014 now play for the Atlanta Falcons, and three others are also in the NFL. The starters on the defensive line will be just fine, but the depth is questionable as they’ll be relying on quite a few freshmen. The Tigers are hurting at linebacker. Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward have moved on to the NFL. Chris Register transitioned to DE. Korie Rogers quit football, and Kendall Joseph had a (somewhat minor) shoulder injury.

Additionally, nickelback Korrin Wiggins tore his ACL. Both DE Clelin Ferrell and CB Mark Fields broke bones in one of their hands. With so much seemingly going wrong this offseason, it’s hard to look this far ahead and call this much more than a toss-up. There are too many players that are nearly irreplaceable (e.g., Deshaun Watson, Mitch Hyatt, Ben Boulware, Shaq Lawson, etc.) to give Clemson a substantial win likelihood percentage. That’s why I have Florida State as a toss-up at 50%. That said, five FSU players were taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, including QB Jameis Winston. The ‘Noles depth chart looks particularly inexperienced. If Clemson can remain healthy and avoid having their depth issues exposed, I believe they capture this game.

 My Win likelihood: 50%

at Syracuse

Syracuse took a step back last year finishing with a paltry 3-9 record. They scored fewer than 21 points in each of their nine losses.

After a promising sophomore year, QB Terrel Hunt regressed as a junior throwing 1 TD and 4 picks before an injury forced him to miss the final seven games of the year. He’ll return next season on an offense that brings back eight total starters. There should be at least marginal improvement there, but with Scott Shafer running the show, how much can you really expect on offense? For goodness sake, Two of their first team O-linemen are listed at 266lbs and 276lbs respectively.

Even if their offense inches forward, the defense could be a disaster. Only three starters return from what was a fairly good unit. I expect them to decline as much on defense as they improve on offense and again miss a bowl game.

Syracuse doesn’t have the talent or coaching to pull off the upset. On the road you can’t count anything out, but the Tigers have better than a nine out of 10 chance to earn this road win.

My Win likelihood: 92%

Wake Forest

Wake’s offense was historically bad last season. John Wolford was on his rear more than any other QB and their yards per rush were 0.7 yards worse than any other team. ESPN has quoted coach Dave Clawson as saying he’s seen high school O-lines bigger than what the Deacons had. You have to appreciate the refreshing honesty he brought to that program in the doldrums.

Their defense, especially the secondary was actually very good, but they lost some key pieces to the NFL. This year could actually be a step back before they begin to really improve under Dave Clawson. The offense should improve as they’ve found a legitimate star TE in Cam Serigne. You probably best remember him for getting lit up by Robert Smith, but he is actually quite the player.

Barring a late season collection of injuries, this should be a chance to get the starters out early and be rested for the Palmetto Bowl. 

My Win likelihood: 97%

at South Carolina

South Carolina has really taken a step back from when their program peaked three or so years ago. The media only picked them to finish fourth in their division this season.

They’ve brought in some JUCO players supplement an abysmal defensive line as well as a quality safety from the University of Kansas via graduate transfer. Considering just how terrible the defensive was last season (allowing 36.8 points per game to SEC opponents) they’re sure to improve.

Conversely, the offense was quite good. Dylan Thompson threw for 3,564 yards (For reference, Watson and Stoudt combined for 3,357). Mike Davis fell just 18 yards short being a 1,000 yard rusher for the second consecutive year. They both headed to San Francisco to start NFL careers leaving the offensive to find new weapons. They return star WR Pharoh Cooper, but the offensive may regress a bit.

Anything can happen in a rivalry game, but Clemson is the better team. It’s far from a given, but Florida State, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech are better teams and bigger challenges.

My Win likelihood: 70%

Final Prognosis

The percentages you read above sum to 9.1 wins. 9-3 is the most likely outcome, but a substantial detractor pulling that number down is the realistic and scary possibility of injury and the lack of depth that makes that so threatening,  If Watson suffers a serious injury (God forbid) and misses significant time, it could be a bit worse than three losses.

QB isn’t the only position Clemson is thin at. The starting 11 on defense looks solid, but there is little depth in the front seven. Additionally, the offensive line is awfully thin after Isaiah Battle left for the supplemental draft.

 

That said, if the Tigers manage to stay healthy, and their depth issues are not exposed, they will have an excellent shot to exceed that projection of nine wins. They have the best WR corps and QB in the conference. They lack a superstar RB, but have a stable of solid backs that should be improved from the rotating door a year ago, especially if Wayne Gallman has improved in pass protection. We hope that the premier offensive line recruits are pushing veterans to new heights and run blocking will improve as players like Tyrone Crowder and Eric Mac Lain improve. The defense loses a lot, but has possibly the best coaching staff in the country to get talented freshmen like Richard Yeargin III ready to contribute.

They are rightfully the spot on favorite to win the ACC, and with health permitting a berth in the Peach Bowl or Orange Bowl (CFB Playoff) are realistic goals for the Clemson Tigers.

AScottPalmettoBowl

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