Expectations soaring for Tigers in 2013

CLEMSON — When Dabo Swinney became Clemson’s head coach in 2008 one of his stated goals was to bring consistent excellence to the Tigers program. Five years later some would say he has reached that goal.

Clemson has won or tied for the ACC Atlantic Division Championship three of the last four years, something that had not been achieved prior to his appointment as leader of the program. That includes an ACC Championship in 2011, a first for the program in 20 years.

Clemson has had back-to-back seasons of at least 10 victories, another first for the program since the 1987-90 era. The Tigers are the only ACC team and one of just 13 programs nationally to win at least 10 games each of the last two seasons. There have been consecutive top 25 seasons, also a first for the program since the 1986-91 era, including a top 10 finish in the final USA Today poll in 2012, the highest final ranking since 1990.

Six of Clemson’s 21 wins the last two years have come against top 25 teams, including four against teams ranked among the top 11 teams in the nation in at least one of the polls at the time of the game. That includes a 38-10 win over a third-ranked Virginia Tech team in the 2011 ACC Championship game, and a 25-24 win over seventh-ranked LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl, the highest ranked victory in a bowl game for the Tigers in nine years.

Clemson has three wins over Top 25 SEC teams over the last two years, the only non-SEC school nationally that can make that claim. In fact there have been only seven non-conference wins overtop 25 SEC teams the last two years and Clemson has three of the seven.

One of the reasons for Clemson’s significant improvement has been recruiting. The Tigers’ 2013 signee class was ranked 13th best in the nation by, the Tigers third straight top 13 ranking by that network. Clemson joins elite programs Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Florida as the only programs to post three straight top 13 recruiting classes.

This list of accomplishments has been gratifying, but for Swinney, there are still many hills to climb.

“I am proud of what we have done, but there is so much more to do,” said Swinney.

“We have realized some accomplishments that haven’t been done here in 20 or 30 years, but we have higher goals. We finished in the top 10 in the nation last year, but we want to do that multiple years. We reached a BCS Bowl in 2011, but we want to be in the mix for a BCS bowl every year. This is a program that has the resources, the tradition, the fan support, the overall infrastructure to compete for the National Championship.”

The 2012 Tigers finished with an 11-2 record, just the fourth 11-win season in Clemson history. Swinney’s team set a school record for conference wins in a season (7-1) and tied for the Atlantic Division championship. With the return of 13 starters and 53 lettermen from last year, (plus one other who lettered in a previous season), there is experience and talent on the 2013 team.

“We have the pieces in place to have another very good season,” Swinney said. “We have returning experience on both sides of the ball. We have seven starters back on offense and six returning on defense. But on the defensive side we have four other players back who started four games or more.

“We have the opportunity to be a special team in 2013, but the ball is not round. We have to get some breaks and avoid injury. Because of the past two years this group knows how to prepare correctly.”

One of the reasons Clemson should be a consensus top 10-15 team entering 2013 is the return of seven starters on offense from a unit that set 101 school records (33 team and 68 individual) in 2012. There are 26 returning lettermen on offense, 17 of whom played at least 100 snaps last year.

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris guided the offense to 41.0 points and 512.7 yards per game, both school records by a large percentage. The scoring average was sixth best in the nation, while the total offense number was ninth best. Clemson was even better in team passing efficiency at 163.1, fourth best in the nation, and the Tigers also led the ACC in passing at 321.6 yards per game, 13th best nationally.

The leader of that offense returns for his red-shirt senior year. Tajh Boyd will own 51 Clemson records when the season kicks off against a top 10 Georgia team in Death Valley on Aug. 31. Those include career standards for touchdown passes, passing efficiency, touchdown responsibility and 300-yard passing games. He has led Clemson to all 21 wins over the last two years as starting quarterback and needs 11 more to tie Rodney Williams (1985-88) career record for wins by a starting quarterback.

Sammy Watkins also returns and will be Boyd’s favorite target. A first-team AP All-American as an all-purpose player in 2011 when he had 82 receptions, Watkins played in just 10 of the 13 games (and one of those was for just two snaps against LSU) last year, but still finished with 57 catches for 708 yards and three scores. He averaged 107 all-purpose yards per game. He is a consensus preseason All-American for 2013.

One personnel number that brings a smile to Swinney’s face as he approaches the 2013 season is the return of four starters from the offensive line.

“If you look over the history of Clemson football, this program has done well in seasons it has four or five starters returning in the offensive line,” said Swinney. “Experience and timing through repetition is so important to the success of an offense.”

Clemson’s defense showed improvement over the course of the season in 2012 under first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables, finishing 22nd in the nation in sacks, including a season-high six in the bowl game against LSU, and while officially Clemson has just six starters returning on defense and only two of the top six tacklers return, there are 10 returning on defense who started at least five games last year. Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony ranked second (93) and fourth (77) in tackles, respectively, and return to anchor the linebacker position.


— Courtesy Clemson Sports Information