by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

You’d think that winning ten games, a conference championship (a first for the school in 20 years), and earning an invitation to a BCS bowl would be enough for a college football coach to quiet his critics, right?

Unless, that is, you’re Dabo Swinney at Clemson.

Acknowledged to be on the hot seat by almost every informed regional observer last year, Swinney’s career in Death Valley appeared to pull out of a nosedive with a dramatic surge from the gate as the Tigers won their first eight games. The stretch drive, however, proved something else entirely, as Dabo’s boys lost three of their last four regular-season outings in mostly-ugly fashion, including a 34-13 beatdown administered by hated, cross-state South Carolina.

Fortunately, Clemson had done enough in the first half of the season to help secure the ACC Atlantic crown. More fortunately, the Tigers were matched against Virginia Tech in the conference title game at Charlotte after having already whipped the Hokies, 23-3, in the first meeting back on October 1.

So much for the VPI revenge motive; the Hokies didn’t do any better in the rematch than Joe Frazier did when trying to avenge his first loss to George Foreman in ‘73. Smokin’ Joe was KO’d in the 5th round of the rematch at the Nassau Coliseum in June of ‘76; the Hokies were KO’d much the same in the ACC title rematch in which Clemson rolled again, 38-10. And Swinney was back in the good graces of the IPTAY crowd.

Well, for a short while, at least. The Orange Bowl adventure vs. West Virginia proved an awful humiliation for Swinney and Clemson, as the Mountaineers dropped a 70-point bomb on the Tigers. Indeed, Clemson could be flattered by the eventual 70-33 scoreline; rarely have we seen a supposed power team so vaporized in a major bowl game.

Unfortunately for Dabo, 70-33 resonated a lot longer than any of his wins last season. Swinney was subsequently shamed into making staff changes to appease his many snipers who were particularly dismayed by the manner in which the Tigers collapsed, especially the embarrassing meltdowns by the defensive unit.

Although Swinney appears in no immediate danger, and despite last season’s success, Dabo is not standing on as firm a ground at Death Valley as many believe. Slipping on a couple of more banana peels could quickly put Swinney back on the hot seat.

That Clemson support base is not the normal ACC variety that often takes basketball more seriously than gridiron action. Indeed, the Tigers more resemble an SEC school, where football (except at Kentucky and maybe Vanderbilt) almost always comes first. It is no coincidence that regional rumor mills for more than a decade have suggested that Clemson is a better fit for the SEC and that a conference switch was in the offing. So far, it’s all proved nothing but idle chatter, but the storyline endures.

The IPTAY (I-Pay-Ten-A-Year) booster group has long held high expectations for Clemson football, although only on rare occasions have the Tigers actually lived up to those lofty goals. Clemson won more than it lost for legendary HC Frank Howard, whose 30-year coaching career ended when he retired after the 1969 season. The ‘60s, however, were a decade in which Clemson never reached a bowl. The program didn’t revive until the ill-fated Charley Pell arrived in 1977, and the Tigers roared behind QB Steve Fuller and wideouts Jerry Butler and Dwight Clark, all of whom to eventually enjoy long NFL careers.

Pell took his two Clemson teams to bowls, including the 1978 edition that again featured Fuller, Butler, and Clark, although he accepted the Florida job before the Gator Bowl. Which meant Pell wasn’t on the sidelines (having been replaced by Danny Ford) when Woody Hayes took that ill-advised swing at Tiger LB Charlie Bauman after the latter’s last-minute interception preserved a 17-15 Clemson win.

The program would reach its greatest heights under Ford in 1981, when a combination of factors thrust Clemson into the national title mix. Besides Dick Crum’s North Carolina, the ACC was enduring a down season, and the Tigers were rarely challenged in league play. Almost all of the top contenders from elsewhere in the country became victimized by a string of upsets in the first half of the season. During an era in which it was harder for an ACC power to get taken seriously by the national media, an early-season 13-3 win at Death Valley over Herschel Walker and defending champion Georgia (right; a game in which the Bulldogs were guilty of nine turnovers) got the Tigers the marquee win they so desperately needed. And when Dan Marino’s Pitt lost its regular-season finale to Penn State, the Tigers entered bowl season as the top-ranked team.

Clemson’s opponent in the Orange Bowl was Nebraska, another bit of good fortune for the Tigers, as it was not quite a vintage Tom Osborne Cornhusker edition that season. Marino’s Pitt would have proven a more-worthy match, but the Panthers were instead in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia. In an unremarkable game, Clemson ended up beating the Cornhuskers in Miami, 22-15, and claimed the national title.

The Tigers thus became the first team since Southern Cal’s 1962 edition to begin the season unranked yet end up as national champions. Ford’s ‘81 special won mostly with defense, featuring a smothering front seven paced by DE Jeff Bryant and LB Jeff Davis, and an active secondary led by S Terry Kinard. Another character to remember from that stop unit was frosh DT William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who made quite a splash in his debut. The offense, led by skittery QB Homer Jordan, deep threat WR Perry Tuttle, and a stable of punishing north-south RBs led by Cliff Austin and Chuck McSwain, was more functional than flashy, but it was good enough to help the Tigers claim one of the more-unlikely national titles in our 55-year TGS publishing history.

Unfortunately for Clemson, infractions committed during the Pell regime resulted in bowl bans and probation for the next two years subsequent to the title season. But the ‘81 team had set the bar pretty high for Tiger supporters, who have been reluctant to accept anything less in the years since...even if that magic ‘81 season is looking further and further back in the rear-view mirror.

Which is why last season ended up so bitterly for those long-time Clemson fans who were dreaming about 1981 before the roof caved in last November.

Since the Tigers allowed 31 points or more in six of their final eight games last fall, including that bowl humiliation vs. West Virginia, Swinney knew where he had to make moves in the offseason, and immediately set about making necessary revisions to his defensive staff, forcing out coordinator Kevin Steele.

And, just as Swinney had gone to the state of Oklahoma a year earlier when luring o.c. Chad Morris from Tulsa, he went back to the same state to tap longtime Oklahoma Sooners d.c. Brent Venables (right) for the same position at Death Valley. Sources say Venables was in a mood for a change after Sooner HC Bob Stoops had recruited brother Mike, most recently the HC at Arizona, to the OU staff. Though Venables denies Mike Stoops’ arrival had anything to do with his departure from Norman, some regional sources believe otherwise.

Swinney believes that Steele was overloading his stop unit with too many schemes and variations. Venables’ more-simplified approach is based more on reading and reacting, utilizing more zone looks and relying upon the defenders’ instincts to sniff out the plays.

Whatever, Venables is being tasked to put some spark into a stop unit that couldn’t stop the wind down the stretch last season. The first order of business is shoring up a defensive front that contributed heavily to poor rush defense numbers in 2011 (ranking 83rd nationally) and lost three of four DL starters, including NFL draftees Andre Branch (Jaguars 2nd round) and Brandon Thompson (Bengals 3rd round). Senior DE Malliciah Goodman (left) is hoping to reprise Branch’s final year and gain the notice of NFL scouts, but the rest of the front is unsettled, especially at the interior positions, where four sophs will continue to battle for playing time in fall camp. Frosh Kevin Dodd and Carlos Watkins will be given their chances as well; there are going to be no age requirements for the DT spots, as the best run-stuffers will play, regardless of class.

The back seven has a more settled look, especially in the secondary where four with starting experience return, although last year’s top cover corner Coty Sensabaugh (drafted by the Titans) could be missed. Senior FS Rashard Hall must also be watched closely after missing spring drills while mending an injured knee. But Venables has plenty of experience within the DB corps, where Jonathan Meeks is a potential star at strong safety and CB Xavier Brewer can be moved like a queen on the chessboard, to any position in the defensive backfield. Touted true frosh Travis Blanks impressed as an early enrollee in spring work and should at least find his way onto the field in nickel-back situations.

The next bona fide Clemson defensive star will likely be soph MLB Stephone Anthony, a 235-lb. destroyer, one of an entire starting LB corps that will return en masse. Junior OLB Quandon Christian (right) can go from sideline-to-sideline in a flash.

Meanwhile, most of the skill-position weapons return for an offense that awakened a year under new o.c. Chad Morris, who arrived from Tulsa and might have personally saved Swinney’s neck with the successful introduction of an uptempo, no-huddle attack that will be piloted again by jr. QB Tajh Boyd, who blossomed last year as a soph when passing for 3828 yards and 33 Tds.

Still, Morris believes that Boyd (left) is not quite a finished product, requiring better pocket presence and decision-making after making several mistakes down the stretch when the Tiger “O” wheezed much like the defense. After committing only 8 giveaways in the first eight games last season, Clemson coughed up the ball 16 times over its last six games. Needless to say, those late-season TO ills must be cured.

To add more variety to the strike force, Morris is also installing some variations of the Nevada “Pistol” formation with direct snaps to Boyd in shorter-drops than the traditional shotgun.

The attack suffered a bit of a scare in the offseason when soph WR/KR Sammy Watkins (right), for whom 2011 was a coming-out party when catching 82 passes a frosh, was charged in May for possession of marijuana and a controlled substance (someone needs to tell Sammie about Amsterdam). Watkins’ punishment, however, is being limited to a suspension for the first two games of the season.

Morris believes Clemson could be the ACC’s equivalent to Southern Cal this fall, so deep are the Tigers (when Watkins is on the field, that is) at the WR spots. Explosive junior DeAndre Hopkins (72 catches last fall) and physical sr. route-runner Jaron Brown (with at least 30 catches each of the past two years) should form, along with Watkins, the ACC’s best wideout corps.

Watkins was also one of the nation’s top kick return threats last fall, and once eligible for the third game (September 15 vs. Furman) will likely begin to return punts as well.

Moreover, the “O” has some long-ball hitters at RB, especially sr. Andre Ellington (left), who decided to stick around Death Valley one more autumn rather than test last April’s NFL Draft. Which was fine by Swinney and Morris, who gladly welcome Ellington’s 1178 YR and 11 TDs from 2011 back into the fold. Still, keeping Ellington healthy hasn’t always been easy (Andre also missed the spring game following ankle surgery), so it’s important that electric soph Mike Bellamy grows up and gets back in the good graces of the coaching staff after earning an attitude-related suspension last December.

The main concern on the attack end? Definitely the offensive line, which must replace three starters from a unit that was inconsistent much of the time a year ago. There’s some comfort with consistent sr. C Dalton Freeman back in the fold. But sealing the edge could be an issue after the Tigers ranked a poor 85th in sacks allowed last fall. Now Swinney and Morris will rely upon a converted guard (projected jr. LT Brandon Thomas), a little-used soph (projected soph RT Gifford Timothy), and a collection of rookies looking to get promoted to first string at the tackle spots.

If Clemson is serious about making a move in the national rankings, it will have to break quickly, with dates vs. Auburn (at Atlanta) and at Florida State in an ACC Atlantic showdown within the first four weeks. And remember that Swinney will not have WR Watkins available for the Auburn opener.

Spread-wise, note that Dabo’s teams have tended to start fast and fade at the finish; they’re 14-6-1 vs. the line in their first seven games the past three seasons, but only 6-12 against the spread in their final six games.

Summary...While Clemson is a popular choice to make a return visit to the BCS, we’re not so sure. Significant question marks along both lines threaten to undermine the Tigers in the fall, and the emotional scars from last season’s collapse could impact the 14 returning starters and various other contributors back in the fold from a year ago. The September dates vs. Auburn and Florida State hold the keys to the season; minus suspended WR Sammy Watkins (out for the first two games), the Auburn opener in the all-Tiger clash in Atlanta will be no picnic, and Clemson must face a revenge-minded Seminole team in Tallahassee. While the Tigers have plenty of flash, we’re not sure they have quite enough substance to make a serious run up the polls this fall.


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