2015 season preview: Clemson Tigers

Its biggest offensive stars departed after 2013, and its hot-shot quarterback was hurt twice last season, yet Clemson still won 10 games for the fourth straight season. That puts the Tigers among the nation’s elite, but there’s a next step Dabo Swinney’s program needs to reach if it wants real respect. Florida State has owned the ACC, but this year, with Deshaun Watson at QB, Clemson is the favorite, and it's time for the Tigers to live up to expectations.

Best-case scenario: It’s ACC title or bust for Clemson in 2015, but the ride won’t be easy. The Tigers have to get through FSU, Louisville and Georgia Tech within the conference, and then there’s the nonconference slate that includes Notre Dame and South Carolina. It’s a schedule that would warrant a playoff berth if Swinney’s squad can get through with minimal damage, and that seems like an appropriate expectation for optimistic Clemson fans.

Worst-case scenario: Watson is hurt again, the defense struggles without Vic Beasley and Co., and those lofty expectations fizzle early. The schedule — FSU, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech at home — still sets up nicely, but if Watson can’t stay healthy, the drop-off at QB is significant. The Tigers won 10 games with Cole Stoudt last year though, and they haven’t lost to an unranked team since 2011, so nine wins still seems like a bare minimum.

Most important player: Is there really any question? If Watson is healthy, he’s a Heisman contender and Clemson has playoff aspirations. If he’s not, the Tigers are in real trouble. There are so many weapons on offense, and Watson is primed to make the most of them. And if Clemson’s offense can score enough to allow the defense to gamble a bit more, the sky is the limit. But Watson is the pivot point for all of those plans.

Breakout player: This list could be a long one. Wayne Gallman emerged late last year, and he could be a 1,000-yard back in 2015. Shaq Lawson might’ve been the conference’s best backup, but he now steps into a starting role. T.J. Green earned raves throughout the spring, and he and Jayron Kearse could be a force at safety. Clemson is as stacked with young talent as any team in the ACC.

Most important game: The road to an ACC title and a playoff berth has plenty of speed bumps, but none looms larger than the Nov. 7 date with Florida State. The Seminoles own a three-game winning streak over the Tigers, and while Clemson appears to have the upper hand with home-field advantage and a more experienced roster, that wasn’t enough in 2013. A win over FSU is an absolute must this time around.

Class of 2015 signee to watch: Christian Wilkins. The No. 32-ranked prospect in the 2015 class is very likely to find his way into the rotation this season and could push D.J. Reader at one tackle spot. The Tigers lost six seniors off the defensive line after last season, thus paving the way for Wilkins and other newcomers on the defensive front to work into the rotation quickly. -- Gerry Hamilton

Class of 2016 storyline: The recruitment of Rahshun Smith. The No. 26-ranked Smith will make official visits to Auburn, LSU and Miami in addition to Clemson. Maryland is also in the picture. As long as Brent Venables is at Clemson, the Tigers' chances remain very good to hold onto the early enrollee. -- Gerry Hamilton