Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney should get an honorary member hat from the South Eastern Conference league office. His team is playing a heck of a good SEC schedule lately.
Last year, Clemson opened against Auburn and finished the regular season with the annual South Carolina war. Then they faced LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. When the Tigers open this season against the Bulldogs on August 31st it will mark their third straight SEC opponent.
With both Georgia and South Carolina scheduled for this year, Clemson likely will have played five ranked SEC teams since opening in 2012. Still, for Tiger coaches and players that may not be enough. Assuming the conference qualifies a team to defend their eight straight BCS national titles in January, their plans are to play yet one more SEC team.
Of course, most top 25 programs will go into this season with plans on winning that last big game and hoisting the Coaches Trophy as they celebrate their way off the field. However, this year’s Clemson team has more reason to believe they can actually accomplish the goal. Since Swinney became the head coach this team has steadily gained national recognition.
Six games into the 2009 season, the Tigers were 3-3 under then head coach Tommy Bowden. While his teams won and went to bowls, they just didn’t make any noise nationally. That all began to change when Bowden was fired and Dabo Swinney took over.
Originally, Swinney was hired on an interim basis to finish out 2009. In his first outing as head coach, the Tigers won at Miami over the No. 8 ranked Hurricanes, 40-37 in overtime. The team finished the regular season 5-1 and lost a heart-breaker to Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.
Still, Swinney had proven himself as a viable head coach and was hired for the position permanently at the end of the year. By his third full season, his team won the conference championship by drubbing then No. 5 nationally ranked Virginia Tech 38-10. Of the Hokies three losses that season, two were at the hands of Clemson by a total score of 61-13.
In 2012, Clemson finished the season with an 11-2 record after beating ninth-ranked LSU on a last play field goal 25-24, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. This season, the Tigers return 12 starters from that team including Heisman Trophy candidate, senior quarterback, Tajh Boyd.
Boyd is Clemson’s No. 2 career passing leader and a top three dual threat quarterback. He can score from anywhere on the field and turn a busted play into a 70-yard touchdown scramble at any time. He was the ACC Player of the Year for 2012.
Also returning is junior All American wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Though he only started ten games last year, he still accounted for 1,209 receiving yards. The other two starting receivers though less experienced, are very talented. Also, as with the new receivers, the feature running backs are not as experienced but are still very highly touted players.
In addition to the high quality skill people, Clemson returns nine of their top 10 offensive linemen from 2012. This is where their 41 points-per-game averaging offense begins.
Overall, the Tiger’s offense finished 2012 ranked No. 9 in the nation. With the additional experience of the linemen, look for the offense to be ranked in the top five barring injuries in 2013.
One of the best additions Swinney has made was in hiring long time defensive coach, Brent Venables after the 2011 season. Venables was the defensive coordinator for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma from 1999 through 2011. His coaching started to make a difference with the Tigers defense last season but should be even better in his second year.
The opener against Georgia and the finale versus South Carolina will both be tough tests this season. Sandwiched toward the middle of the schedule, Florida State will be a good team as well. However, as with Georgia, their defense may be down a notch from last year.
Still, by the time the teams play, they will have had some time to work on it. One thing the Seminoles can’t change is they must come to Death Valley this season, where they have lost three in a row.
The college game has changed a lot since Danny Ford’s 1981 Clemson team. Then, they smothered the competition with a great defense that allowed less than nine points-per-game on average. That Clemson team finished the year 12-0 and national champions.
As a rule, this generation of football fan doesn’t have an appreciation of great defense—unless it is played by their favorite team—as some of the more seasoned fans. Still, whatever the age, Clemson fans will appreciate as much now as they did then a win / loss record like 1981. No guarantees of course, but the pieces are closer in place now than any time since that magical year.