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College Football Preview 2023: 6. Clemson Tigers

Cade Klubnik, Clemson

6. Clemson Tigers

Even with FSU on the rise, the hiring of Garrett Riley should help Clemson maintain their hold on the ACC

2022 Review
Clemson kicked off their 2022 by running past Georgia Tech on Labor Day, setting the stage for what they hoped would be a resurgent campaign after a "down" 2021. They ripped off two straight victories against soft non-conference competition, before what appeared to be their toughest stretch of the schedule: a road contest against Wake Forest and home meeting with NC State. The Tigers got a battle from both, but managed to overcome Wake in double OT and beat NC State. They then overcame a road trip to Boston College and Florida State, and after beating Syracuse, an undefeated regular season didn't seem out of the question. Notre Dame spoiled those hopes in short order, handing Clemson one of their most lopsided defeats of Swinney's tenure, 35-14. It seemed to give the program a wake-up call, but after beating Louisville and Miami to wrap up their ACC slate, they were shocked by rival South Carolina, 31-30. It was South Carolina's first win in the series since 2013 and effectively ended Clemson's CFB Playoff hopes, even though they were able to blow out North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. Heading into the Orange Bowl against a Hendon Hooker-less Tennessee, the Tigers were touchdown favorites, but watched Joe Milton throw all over them in a surprising 31-14 loss. All in all, the 11-3 record felt a bit flat, even with a conference title on top of it. It's clear Clemson remains the program to beat in the league, even if Florida State may have something to say about that, but the three defeats showed there was work to be done. Dabo was more aggressive this offseason in his changes to the program, which he hopes will set them up for a big 2023.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Clemson will be breaking in their third offensive coordinator in as many years, as Dabo replaced Brandon Streeter with TCU's Garrett Riley. It was a statement hire by Dabo, who has been notoriously loyal to his assistants, but felt the offense underachieved in 2022. Riley, who played a key role in leading TCU all the way to a National Championship, should bring a fresh perspective and has plenty to work with.

Riley will be working with a new quarterback, as it's officially Cade Klubnik time. Klubnik arrived on campus with plenty of fanfare and looked to unseat reigning starter D.J. Uiagalelei, but made just one start. With Uiagalelei transferring to Oregon State, Klubnik is now clearly the guy, and will hope to energize a lethargic passing attack. 

The sophomore quarterback is exceptionally talented and seems to pair well with Riley, but any hopes of a Clemson offensive renaissance hinges on more consistency from this receiver corps. This position group has long been the strength of Swinney-coached teams, but has been underwhelming in recent years. Fortunately, two proven playmakers return in Beaux Collins and Antonio Williams, and there are several breakout candidates farther down the depth chart. Williams in particular has a chance to be a special player; he led the Tigers in receiving as a freshman and has the physical tools to be a potent deep threat.

Along with those two, Brannon Spector has proven to be a reliable piece, and big things are expected from rising sophomore Adam Randall. The big-bodied receiver might not look like it, but he's the fastest player on the team and should be able to hurt defenses over the top. Redshirt frosh Cole Turner is another youngster to watch who played in three games last fall.

Tight end is a position of strength, even with Davis Allen moving on the NFL. Jake Briningstool emerged as a legitimate receiving threat in 2022, and offers more athleticism than Allen. With even more opportunities, he should be among the best in the ACC.

Despite the emphasis that will be placed on the passing game this fall, the star of the show offensively for Clemson will remain tailback Will Shipley. After making five starts as a true freshman, Shipley was a workhorse for the Tigers in 2022, notching 1,182 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has a chance to take the next step on a national level after earning All-ACC honors a season ago. Junior Phil Mafah offers a nice complement, earning 515 yards himself last fall. At 230 pounds, he's a powerful rusher who should continue to be of service on third downs and short yardage situations.

Clemson's offensive line tends to get overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but the reality is that it's been a consistent, productive group throughout the Swinney era. That should remain the case once more, as four starters return, with Jordan McFadden being the only departure. Senior center Will Putnam anchors things in the middle, but Walker Parks, Blake Miller, and Marcus Tate all offer plenty of help. Left guard is the one spot that could be a concern, although junior Mitchell Mayes has seen plenty of action throughout his Clemson career and should be able to slide into a starting spot.

A fresh perspective is exactly what this offense needs after two underwhelming campaigns, and Riley is considered one of the fastest rising names in college coaching. There's sure to be some growing pains early as Klubnik settles into the starting role, but Shipley should be able to carry the load, ensuring this offense has a chance to be one of the best in the ACC.

Defense: It was understandable that Clemson's defense took a slight step back in 2022, as they were replacing longtime coordinator Brent Venables. Even so, they remained a stingy group that allowed just 21 points per game and sent several players off to the NFL.

It all begins up front for the Tigers, as they've sent a slew of linemen to the pros over the last decade. That was the case again over the offseason, with Myles Murphy and Byran Bresee moving on, but this should remain an elite group. Veterans Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro are gap-eaters on the interior who have proven themselves as one of the top combos in the nation. Davis earned All-American recognition last year and could have left, but now gives Clemson a force to be reckoned with for another year. Off the edge, Xavier Thomas and Justin Mascoll have been around the program for a long time and are looking to conclude their collegiate careers with a bang. Thomas in particular is fascinating to me; he looked like he was going to be absolutely dominant after his freshman campaign, but just hasn't built on it the way Clemson would have hoped. Is this the year it finally all comes together over the course of an entire season?

It's a similar story in the linebacker corps, where there's a notable loss (Trenton Simpson), but still loads of talent to go around. Sophomore middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter led the team in tackles a season ago and seems to be getting even better, while outside linebacker Barrett Carter has received high praise from Swinney and the entire Clemson staff. Really the only question mark is at the other outside linebacker spot but again, there appears to be a piece ready step in. Sophomore Wade Woodaz made one start as a true freshman and seemed to be up for the challenge. He should be able to step up, particularly with Trotter and Carter helping him clean up.

The Tiger secondary has been their weak spot in recent years, particularly last fall, but it's important to note that this entire unit suffered through injuries. It should be healthier in 2023 and looks to be their deepest unit on the defense.

Cornerbacks Nate Wiggins and Sheridan Jones might not have All-American talent, but are extremely capable, reliable defenders. There's also better depth at the position after going through last season, with Toriado Pride likely to play a role. He proved to be a real factor in run support, contributing 23 tackles to the cause a season ago.

Safety is a real strength, as the Tigers return three players who could start on just about any defense in the country. Andrew Mukuba built on an impressive freshman campaign and should lock down the strong safety spot, while Jayln Phillips handles free safety duties. R.J. Mickens is also in the mix, a junior who has made eight starts during his time at Clemson. Add in Tyler Venables, the son of Brent who stuck around, this is probably the best safety group in the ACC.

Considering the injuries Clemson dealt with last season, it was actually a stellar debut for coordinator Wes Goodwin. His second group has a chance to be even better, thanks to one of the nation's top linebacker corps and a deep secondary. This is one of the best defenses anywhere in the country, an elite group that will be the back-bone of the team once again.

Special Teams: B.T. Potter left town over the offseason after a long, highly productive Clemson career. He hit 20-26 field goals his final year on campus and won't be easily replaced. Although, sophomore Robert Gunn at least has some experience and is on the inside track to be his long-term replacement. Fortunately, punter Aidan Swanson returns after securing a 42.3 average last season.

Bottom Line
It was only natural Clemson was going to take a slight step back after winning National Titles in 2016 and 2018 and playing for another in 2019. But, Dabo Swinney showed a real willingness to evolve his unique coaching style over the offseason, clearly looking for ways to get Clemson back on a National Championship track. This 2023 team has the pieces in place to reverse the misfortune of the last two seasons, but they are also breaking in a brand new quarterback and replacing some key pieces. They are also facing an improved ACC which now includes a Florida State program that will field their best team in a decade in 2023. Even so, I think Clemson should be the league favorite until someone proves otherwise and even with all the attention surrounding the 'Noles, the Tigers remain the safe bet. Even the last two "down" years, they've won 10 and 11 games and been in the thick of the Playoff race. That's the worst case scenario for this year's team and if things come together, a third National Title for Dabo isn't completely out of the question.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Dabo Swinney enters Year 16 at the helm at Clemson, looking to return the Tigers to the College Football Playoff after a two-year hiatus. Swinney has been built an extraordinary resume over his tenure, with eight conference titles, six Playoff appearances, and two National Titles to his credit. But, he's hoping to still prove he has his fastball after two "down" seasons that have seen the Tigers go a combined 21-6. Dabo made a statement over the offseason by firing OC Brandon Streeter after one season and replacing him with Garret Riley, who played a major role in TCU's National Championship run. Riley, the younger brother of USC head man Lincoln, is considered one of the fastest rising names in coaching and was potentially the most important coordinator hire of the offseason. On the other side of the ball, Wes Goodwin will run it back as the second-year coordinator. He was tasked with the unenviable job of replacing Brent Venables, but did a solid job during his debut campaign. Goodwin knows the program inside and out, coaching with the Tigers since 2009, and has steadily worked his way up the ladder.

Recruiting Breakdown
Dabo Swinney notoriously doesn't lean on the transfer portal the way other coaches or programs do, which means high school recruiting is particularly crucial. Despite that, the 2023 Class is good, but pales in comparison to some of the past groups that Swinney and staff have brought in. That's not to say there isn't loads of talent arriving, led by three future star defensive linemen, Vic Burley, Tomarrion Parker, and Peter Woods. Woods in particular has been receiving ample hype over the offseason and looks like he could be an instant contributor. On the offensive side of the ball, tackle Zach Owens is a behemoth who should upgrade an O-Line that has at times been inconsistent throughout the last several years. Already 365 pounds, Owens should overpower future defenders, but will his conditioning be up to par? Quarterback Christopher Vizzina is another name to watch, a four-star quarterback who the Tigers brought in from the state of Alabama. He's not the most talented QB Clemson has brought on, but Vizzina is a well-rounded prospect with plenty of upside.

2023 Schedule Analysis
For the second straight year, Clemson will kick off their fall with a Labor Day battle with a conference foe. This time it's at Duke, a team that could be a challenge considering they have a dynamic quarterback in Riley Leonard. The Tigers should roll through their next two weeks against Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic before arguably the biggest game of the year. Florida State comes to town looking for their first win against the Tigers since 2014 in what could be a preview of the ACC Championship Game. After going on the road to Syracuse, Clemson should enjoy a fairly easy October, with a bye coming before their most important game of the month, a road trip to Miami. November gives them an opportunity for revenge, multiple times. They welcome Notre Dame to Death Valley this year after the debacle last fall and also go on the road to South Carolina in the regular season finale. The Tigers have won the last four in Columbia, but expect this one to be rocking.

2023 X-Factor: Cade Klubnik, QB
In the last decade, Clemson has had a truly amazing track record with quarterbacks. Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson are two legends of the game, Tajh Boyd is their all-time leading passer, and Kelly Bryant was effective. But, the last two years the position has been a source for disappointment, as D.J. Uiagalelei wasn't able to develop the way Clemson had hoped after flashing star potential during the 2020 season. He did make progress last fall but by the season's end, it was clear that it was Cade Klubnik time. The top quarterback in his class coming out of college, Klubnik has impressive natural arm talent and can make things happen with his legs. It's hard to glean too much from his performance last season and Clemson did lose in his one start, but pairing up with Garrett Riley should be a perfect opportunity for the sophomore. If he can acclimate quickly, Clemson has the pieces around him to contend for a National Title. That's not to say there won't be growing pains, but how Klubnik handles them determines just how high the ceiling is for the Tigers in 2023.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 ACC, Win ACC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Will Shipley
Defensive MVP: LB Jeremiah Trotter
Impact Freshman: DL Peter Woods
Impact Transfer: N/A
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Wade Woodaz

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