2015 record: 14-1 (8-0 ACC)
Clemson enjoyed a dream season in 2015, as the Tigers fell just short of a national championship when Alabama pulled away in the fourth quarter of the national title game. The loss left a bitter taste in the mouths of the returning Tigers, with Deshaun Watson, Ben Boulware & Co. out to finish the job. Even so, their road gets tougher in 2016, as Clemson must replace departed stars on defense and get past a loaded ACC Atlantic for another shot at a championship.
Here are three storylines to watch:
Can Clemson handle the hype?
All the offseason talk has been about expectations and handling the burden of being the favorite, but coach Dabo Swinney isn’t hearing it. Clemson has won 10 games every season since 2011, as he’s quick to remind anyone who mentions the target on his back, so it’s not as if the Tigers aren’t used to being the hunted. Still, 2016 is different, whether Swinney wants to admit to it or not. Never before has Clemson opened a season with such a clear picture of what’s possible. Watson might be the best player in the country, and the offense is loaded with weapons. There has been turnover on defense, but Clemson returns stars including Boulware, Carlos Watkins and Cordrea Tankersley. More than anything, the Tigers have seen the mountaintop by reaching last season's national title game, and now they want desperately to get back. However, the path this season will be more difficult, with a brighter spotlight on the program and a better division to contend with.
Who’s rushing the passer?
Christian Wilkins spent the offseason training the young pups on the defensive line, then cross-training himself to play defensive end. With Austin Bryant out at least a few weeks, Wilkins’ ability to move to the edge is already paying dividends. Still, Clemson is young up front, and though Wilkins offers some options, he has never taken a meaningful snap at defensive end. Neither, for that matter, has Richard Yeargin or Clelin Ferrell. It’s not as if the Tigers haven’t developed young stars at end before, but there’s far more on the line this time around, and with mobile quarterbacks waiting early, there isn't going to be much time for growing pains.
Will the Tigers be able to win in Tallahassee?
Clemson's Oct. 29 date with Florida State is the big game once again. The winner has gone on to take the ACC Atlantic in each of the past six seasons. Watson got his first taste of Tallahassee as a true freshman, and he looked sharp in his first extended duty as a college player. Still, Clemson lost that game in overtime. In fact, the Tigers haven’t won on Florida State’s turf since 2006. There are other challenges on the schedule, of course. Auburn in Week 1 and Louisville on Oct. 1 could be hazardous. But fans of both the Tigers and the Seminoles know which game means the most, and Clemson’s hope for a return trip to the playoff likely will be determined in Tallahassee.