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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: Clemson Tigers

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Notre Dame FINALLY gets to take that road trip to Clemson this year.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

CLEMSON TIGERS

2014 Record: 10-3

F/+ Rank: 14

Wins: South Carolina State, North Carolina, NC State, Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Georgia State, South Carolina, Oklahoma

Losses: Georgia, Florida State, Georgia Tech

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Season Recap

The Tigers faced some challenges while moving on from the Tajh Boyd era--going 1-3 against teams that finished ranked in the AP Poll--but still scraped together another double digit season and very respectable finish in the F/+ ranking.

Clemson dropped 2 out of their first 3 games, including a 24-point defeat in the opener against Georgia (Todd Gurley was in beast mode gaining 293 all-purpose yards) and an overtime loss to a Jameis Winston-less Florida State squad. Sandwiched in between was a 66-point win over SC State.

They then ripped off 6 straight wins in league play--the first two over NC State (41-0) and Louisville (23-17, the lone ranked victory of the season) quite impressive but the final 3 over BC, Syracuse, and Wake Forest were by just a combined 28 points. The Tigers were then held to 190 total yards in a road loss to Georgia Tech but finished the season with 3 straight victories which included beating South Carolina and Oklahoma by a combined 75-23.

Series: 1-1-0 Tied

These two programs played a home-and-home back in 1977-79. The Fighting Irish visit to Death Valley in '77 saw the road team trail 17-7 in the fourth quarter but several fumbles and 2 quarterback sneak touchdowns from Joe Montana brought a Notre Dame victory to preserve what would become a National Championship season. Clemson would get its revenge in South Bend two years later winning 16-10.

Coach Resume: Dabo Swinney (61-26, 8th Year)

Swinney was an assistant at Clemson for 6 years before taking over for Tommy Bowden in the middle of the 2008 season. His first 2.5 years were not noteworthy (19-15 overall) but since 2011 Swinney has compiled 4 straight seasons of 10+ wins with 3 straight bowl victories, including the Orange Bowl from the 2013 season.

The Tigers have won the ACC just once under Swinney, however, since 2011 their 42-11 overall record is 7th best in the country and 5th best among Power 5 teams behind only Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State.

Returning Starters: 9 Total (6 offense, 3 defense)

Clemson brings back some nice pieces on offense but is in the middle of a major overhaul on defense.

Linemen Situation: Not Good

There was a lot of shuffling on the offensive line last year. Kalon Davis is gone after starting 9 games at right tackle, 2 games at right guard, and 2 games at left tackle. Reid Webster moves on after starting 9 games at right guard, 2 at left guard, 1 at right tackle, and 1 game at center. The final loss is David Beasley who made 11 starts at left guard.

Senior Isaiah Battle is expected to hold down the left tackle position after making 11 starts there in 2014. On the other edge 5th-year senior Joe Gore is expected to play after starting the first 3 games of 2014. At center, fifth-year senior Ryan Norton returns after making 11 starts last fall--although redshirt junior Jay Guillermo (1 start) will return to school this summer after leaving last fall and is considered the best center on the roster. At the guard spots both 5th-year senior Eric Mac Lain and redshirt sophomore Tyrone Crowder made 1 start apiece last year and are the favorites heading into August camp.

Up front on defense it's almost a total rebuild. At defensive end Vic Beasley (12 starts, 21.5 TFL, 12 sacks, 8th overall to Atlanta), Corey Crawford (10 starts, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks), and Tavaris Barnes (3 starts, 5 TFL, 3 sacks) have moved on. At tackle Clemson is replacing Grady Jarrett (13 starts, 10 TFL, 137th overall to Atlanta), DeShawn Williams (7 starts, 8 TFL, 3 sacks), and Josh Watson (5 starts, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks). That's 6 out of their top 8 defensive linemen gone.

A projected starting lineup for the Tigers will likely have junior Shaq Lawson (1 start, 11.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) as the most talented player at WDE, while redshirt junior Kevin Dodd (8 tackles, 2.5 TFL) is at the strong-side. On the interior redshirt junior Carlos Watkins (8 tackles, 2.5 TFL) offers some experience as does senior D.J. Reader (1 start, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks).

Beyond that there is some young talent--helped out by perhaps the country's best crop of freshmen--but a lot of question marks linger going into the season on D-line depth and rotation. The depth took a little bit of a hit recently with the dismissal of rising redshirt sophomore Ebenezer Ogundeko.

Returning Quarterback: No, But Yes

Clemson began the Boyd-less quarterback era by initially turning to senior Cole Stoudt who would go on to start the first 3 games of the season before being benched in favor of freshman phenom Deshaun Watson. During the Louisville game on October 11th, Watson broke his hand and missed the next 3 games which moved Stoudt back into the starting position.

Watson returned for the Georgia Tech game but sprained his knee, and later tore his ACL in practice. Shockingly, Watson started the regular season finale against South Carolina but the program decided to repair his knee prior to the bowl game.

Stoudt was decidedly average (9 TD, 10 INT, 6.3 YPA, not a great runner) and has since graduated.

Watson put together one of the finest true freshman campaigns in history. He completed almost 68% of his passes for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. Additionally, Watson fell just short of qualifying for national rankings but his 10.7 yards per attempt and 188.57 passer rating would have both led the entire country. He's also athletic and chipped in 200 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Watson is hopeful to be 100% healthy by the summer.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Re-loading on Defense

We already mentioned the losses on the defensive line and in addition to that 4 out of the team's 5 top tacklers need to be replaced including both linebackers in MLB Stephone Anthony (75 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 31st overall to New Orleans) and WLB Tony Steward (58 tackles, 10 TFL, 188th overall to Buffalo). Notre Dame's spread run game *should* match up very well with Clemson's defense in 2015.

The Tigers need to replace 66.7% of their tackles for loss and 66.6% of their sacks from a year ago.

Biggest Strength for 2015: The Pass Game

If Watson regains full health and proves not to have a sophomore slump then the sky is the limit. The program loses the Clemson version of Robby Toma in Adam Humphries (30 receptions, 204 yards) but brings back all other receivers. Plus, two elite freshmen arrive in Deon Cain (.990 Composite score) and Ray Ray McCloud (.959) which should help bolster one of the country's best receiver units.

Offensive Scheme: Spread

Clemson lost OC Chad Morris to the head coaching position at SMU and he was considered one of the best offensive minds in the country. The program promoted from within and gave running back coach Tony Elliot and wide receiver coach Jeff Scott the Co-OC job, so not much scheme change is likely.

The Tigers like to spread the field using 10 and 01 personnel quite frequently. They're not shy about running the ball but almost a quarter of their carries (with sacks included) come from the quarterback position and in 2014 the passing game was their bread and butter. Last year, they also liked to bring in 2 or 3 bodies into the backfield with Watson in order to run some option with more lead blocking.

4 Players to Watch

WR Mike Williams, Jr.- An explosive and tall (6-4) receiver with big-play ability. Led the Tigers in yards (1,030) on a healthy 18.07 yards per catch. Finished as a 2nd team All-ACC performer in 2014.

WR Artavis Scott, So.- A top 100 recruit who exploded on the scene last year leading Clemson in catches (76) and touchdowns (8). Earned 1st team freshman All-American and 2nd team All-ACC honors.

CB Mackensie Alexander, RS So.- Remember when we recruited him? Now, he's Clemson's top corner having started all 13 games last year finishing with 21 tackles and 6 pass break ups.

S Jayron Kearse, Jr.- A big (6-4, 210) rangy safety with 15 career starts already. Finished third on the team last year with 60 tackles and totaled 5 TFL, 3 sacks, and 2 picks.

Special Teams: 2/4

Punter Bradley Pinion moved on to the NFL while 5th-year senior Ammon Lakip at kicker. Lakip finished as a semi-finalist for the Lou Groza award after nailing 21 out of 28 field goal attempts.

Junior safety T.J. Green is back at kick returner, but Clemson will have to find a new punt returner with Adam Humpheries gone.

Uniforms: 8/10

Clemson uniform

Tyler Smith, Getty Images

Occasionally, the Clemson uniforms will pop up on a list as the best in college football, and while I wouldn't go quite that far, they're certainly up there. They achieve the rare combination of keeping things simple, dare I say traditional, while seemingly continuing to look fresh each season. A lot of that has to do with the awesomely vibrant orange/purple color combination, but still, it can be tempting to go crazy with that palette so it's refreshing to see them not mess it up.

Since the game is in Death Valley we're likely to see Clemson's traditional orange jersey/white pants combination, although they could go all-orange, or orange with purple pants.

if we're lucky, the Tigers could break out the purple jerseys which offer the purple on purple set, purple with orange pants, or purple with white pants. There are very monochromatic uniforms that improve upon a programs' normal sets and that's the case with Clemson. Let's hope they avoid that modern plague and wear their white pants.

What's To Like About the Matchup

Clemson is almost guaranteed to take a step back, possibly a sizable step back, on defense this fall. Their offense wasn't well rounded last year and could rely too much on the quarterback position. Notre Dame's emerging power spread will match up well against Clemson. Their game prior to Notre Dame is against Louisville.

What's Not To Like About the Matchup

That Louisville game is on a Thursday with a bye before the Irish, so 16 days rest. Death Valley, at night most likely. The Tigers are 26-2 at home since 2011. Deshaun Watson could potentially take over the game and leave a crushed Irish secondary in his wake.

Opponent Power Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 2nd Toughest

I'll be honest I'm not super tied to Clemson being the 2nd toughest opponent on the schedule. That ranking is mostly a quick surface look and combination of Deshaun Watson's potential + road game at Death Valley + Clemson's overall strength and recent history of a program. I wouldn't be surprised if the game is a little easier (depending on your viewpoint I guess but easier in terms of Clemson being a Top 10-ish program) than most think or if the Tigers take a small step backwards in 2015 and fail to get to 10+ wins for the 5th straight year.

There are so many questions for Clemson to answer on defense that it's going to be fascinating to see how they re-load this fall. And remember, this was a defense that ranked 1st nationally in FEI defense AND S&P defense. They led the country in opponent YPP (4.03), finished 3rd in scoring defense (16.7 pts), 7th in sacks (45), and 1st by a wide margin in tackles for loss (131).

Losing 8 starters from that insane production is a tall task. And while Clemson recruits really well this has the look and feel of a transitional year for them on defense. For example, take a look at all of the Tiger defenders who carried at least a Composite score of .900 coming out of high school:

NAME SCORE '14 TACKLES
DT Christian Wilkins, Fr. .988 N/A
CB Mackensie Alexander, RS So. .985 21
S Travis Blanks, RS Jr. .956 N/A
DT Albert Huggins, Fr. .955 N/A
CB Mark Fields, Fr. .953 N/A
LB Dorian O'Daniel, RS So. .952 28
DE Clelin Ferrell, Fr. .944 N/A
LB Korie Rogers, RS Fr. .933 N/A
DE Shaq Lawson, Jr. .922 34
LB Ben Boulware, Jr. .921 40
DE Austin Bryant, Fr. .916 N/A
S Jayron Kearse, Jr. .912 60
LB Chad Smith, Fr. .906 N/A
DE Martin Aiken, RS Jr. .900 6

14 players at .900 or better certainly isn't bad by any stretch. For comparison, the Irish have 18 such players on defense. The difference between the two programs being half of Clemson's players have freshmen eligibility and only 5 other players are projected to start on defense. The Irish will have 9 players, at minimum, starting with .900 scores or better, and in certain configurations the entire defense. Obviously, recruiting rankings aren't everything and we can give Clemson the benefit of the doubt in their ability to develop players. It's just this season will be very difficult to have a very good to great defense.

So let's just agree Clemson's not going to come close to repeating the top ranked defense in the FO advanced stats. But what's going on with their offense?

Somewhat surprisingly, the Tiger offense wasn't all that well respected last year finishing 61st in FEI and 44th in S&P. The main culprits being Cole Stoudt just wasn't that good and the run game never got going.

Stoudt started the Georgia loss, only mustered 70 yards and zero points on 3 drives before being pulled in the loss to FSU, and came in on the third series against Georgia Tech after Watson's injury, with a 3-0 lead, immediately threw a red zone pick six, and would toss two more interceptions with only 3 completions in the team's 3rd loss.

The run game wasn't awful on the surface (1,904 yards, 20 touchdowns) but laid some stink bombs in their toughest games which led to a shockingly low 106th ranking in S&P rushing. Against Georgia, FSU, Louisville, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma the Tigers gained 460 yards on 191 carries--just 2.4 yards per rush. The top 3 backs return, plus Tyshon Dye who is the highest rated running back on the roster but missed all of 2013 with a back injury and most of 2014 following a torn Achilles last spring. With Watson captaining the offense for an entire season I'm sure decent gains are ahead for Clemson's rushing attack.

Deshaun Watson is such a focus for me. His first year was so amazing but a little on the small sample size side of things--he started 5 games but only started and finished 2 games. If he comes back healthy and recaptures his freshman form for an entire season this game is probably a loss with the Tigers capable of throwing 45 points on the board.

If Notre Dame wins it'll be because the Irish offense can effectively run the ball against a Tiger front that is a big concern, Clemson's defense takes a step or two back on defense, and Watson is something less than an All-American candidate.