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Dr. Saturday

Spring football 25: Clemson Tigers

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Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t the 25 best going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Texas A&M.

CLEMSON

What happened in 2012
Clemson's fine season was legitimized by one win. It took the Tigers until the final seconds of the season and the calendar year to get it, but it was worth the wait.

Clemson's regular season was filled with blowout wins and two disappointing losses against the only elite opponents on the schedule. The Tigers ripped through most of the schedule, as nine of their 10 regular-season wins came by at least 14 points. They scored at an unbelievable rate, getting at least 38 points in all nine of those wins.

That's what made the two losses so tough. Clemson lost at Florida State in a game that wasn't all that competitive, and then lost at home to rival South Carolina to end the season.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl turned the perception of Clemson's season around. With a startling last minute drive, including a conversion on fourth and 16 and a game-winning field goal as time expired, the Tigers got their signature win against LSU.

That win gave Clemson plenty of excitement and momentum into the offseason.

What makes them interesting in 2013

The Tigers became a lot more excited for 2013 when quarterback Tajh Boyd announced he was returning.

Boyd is already Clemson's career leader in touchdown passes and 300-yard games. He had 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns last season. Last year he improved his completion percentage from 59.7 in 2011 to 67.2, and made other small strides in most passing categories. If he can get his interception total into single digits, after throwing 13 last year and 12 the year before, he'll be in the conversation for a Heisman Trophy. Oh, and he had 514 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.

The rest of the team around him is good, with 55 players who have earned a letter at Clemson returning, including seven starters on an offense that averaged 41 points and 512.7 yards per game. Dabo Swinney has built a very good program, with back-to-back 10-win seasons and the school's highest finish in the final poll since 1990, with a No. 9 spot in the coaches poll. This has a chance to be Swinney's best team yet.

What needs to happen this spring
The defense was better by the end of the season, and played very well against a LSU team that had offensive troubles at times in 2012 but was coming on late in the year. Clemson held LSU to 219 yards and had six sacks. It would be a major surprise if Clemson's offense isn't great again in 2013. What the Tigers need to find out is if the defense can raise its level of play.

Only two of Clemson's top six tacklers return, but the school does point out that 10 players who started at least five games on defense last year are back. The linebackers should be solid, because that's where those two leading returning tacklers (Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony) play. A lot of good players aren't back including leading tackler Tig Willard, top interceptor Rashard Hall and Malliciah Goodman, who had three of those sacks in the bowl win.

There's not a lot of known star power on this defense, but the coaches will have to figure out the best way to get that unit to support a great offense.

Gamechanger
Receiver Sammy Watkins had a strange sophomore season. He was a first-team AP All-American as a freshman with 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. As a sophomore, aside from an eight-catch 202-yard performance against Wake Forest, he wasn't the same player. He had only one other 100-yard game, with 110 yards on 11 catches against N.C. State, and missed all or most of four games due to suspension or injury. He finished with just 57 catches, 708 yards and three touchdowns.

DeAndre Hopkins picked up the slack, with an ACC record 18 touchdown catches. But he's gone, and Watkins is on the spot. We're betting on a near return for Watkins to his freshman production. The 6-1, 205-pound burner has too much talent to be average again.

Wild cards
Hopkins is clearly the biggest loss for the Tigers, but they will miss running back Andre Ellington too. Ellington was a staple of the offense, with back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and 33 rushing touchdowns in his career.

Rod McDowell might be next in line after averaging 5.4 yards on 83 attempts last season. D.J. Howard has played too, but he needs to prove he can stay healthy. Zac Brooks had 119 yards as a true freshman last year. There's no clear answer here, and Clemson needs a running game to stay balanced and make sure the entire offensive load isn't on Boyd.

The offense line does lose standout center Dalton Freeman, but the other four starters return. That will help the new tailback, whoever it is.

Key games
Aug. 31 vs. Georgia
Oct. 19 vs. Florida State
Nov. 30 at South Carolina

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina, Baylor, Ohio State.

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