College football Top 25: No. 4 Clemson enters a program-defining year

The college football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year Yahoo Sports revealed the teams from No. 11 to 25 at once before we publish each of our top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to Week 1. That continues with No. 4 Clemson.

Previously: 11-25, No. 10 Oregon, No. 9 NC State, No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 6 Michigan, No. 5 Utah

No. 4 Clemson

  • 2021 record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)

  • National title odds: +1200

  • ACC title odds: -145

  • Over/under: 10.5 wins

Was the 2021 season the start of a downturn for Clemson? Or was it just a hiccup?

The Tigers won 10 games a year ago but it was a considerable step back for what has been a perennial College Football Playoff contender under Dabo Swinney.

Clemson opened the season with a 10-3 loss to Georgia, a result that signified things to come. Not only would Georgia’s defense dominate the competition on the way to a national title, but Clemson’s offense would struggle mightily.

Clemson lost a combined three games in the three previous seasons but ended up going 4-3 over its first seven games. During that stretch, the Tigers averaged a measly 15 points per game against FBS competition. Nobody thought it would be simple to replace Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne on offense, but for the drop-off to be that dramatic was shocking.

Thanks to a ferocious defense, things stabilized over the second half and Clemson closed out the year with six consecutive wins. But the team’s slow start was too much to overcome and Clemson’s six-year streaks of both reaching the College Football Playoff and winning the ACC championship came to an end.

How will Clemson respond in 2022? While the defense is again expected to be one of the best in the country, there is an abundance of questions about the offense. On top of that, there were rare changes on Swinney’s staff with both coordinators leaving for head-coaching jobs.

This could prove to be a pivotal year in the arc of the Clemson program.

Clemson enters the season at No. 4 in our preseason top 25. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
Clemson enters the season at No. 4 in our preseason top 25. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

Improvement on offense begins with the quarterback

The biggest question surrounding Clemson is the quarterback position.

When he filled in for Trevor Lawrence in 2020, DJ Uiagalelei was tremendous. In two starts, Uiagalelei combined for 781 yards and four touchdowns through the air and also had two rushing touchdowns. He looked like the next great Clemson quarterback. But in 2021, Uiagalelei was one of the worst starters in the ACC. He completed just 55.6% of his throws for nine TDs and 10 INTs while averaging only six yards per attempt.

The offense was downright ugly, but Uiagalelei wasn’t the only one to blame. The offensive line was a question mark entering the season and then got worse as the unit was besieged by injuries and inconsistency. The running back group was also banged up while the wide receivers badly underperformed relative to their lofty recruiting pedigrees. All of those issues resulted in a unit completely incapable of producing explosive plays, particularly in the passing game.

Will things improve in 2022? If Uiagalelei doesn’t turn it around, five-star freshman Cade Klubnik is waiting in the wings. The Texas native was the No. 3 overall prospect in the class of 2022, according to Rivals. He enrolled at Clemson early, went through spring practice and quickly worked his way up to No. 2 on the depth chart. If Uiagalelei falters, the cries for Klubnik will come quickly.

There’s precedent for Swinney to go with an experienced option to begin the season only for the veteran to cede the starting spot to the five-star freshman. It happened with Deshaun Watson and Lawrence. It would not be a surprise if it happened with Klubnik if Uiagalelei continues to struggle.

For the rest of the offense, Will Shipley and Kobe Pace in the running game are expected to be a strength — especially if the offensive line stays healthy and is able to get some continuity. The receivers have to be better. That group would benefit greatly from the emergence of a reliable option in the slot. Maybe tight end Davis Allen can fill that role?

Brandon Streeter, the new offensive coordinator after Tony Elliott’s departure to Virginia, could have his work cut out for him. But if there’s significant improvement, look out.

Defense should be one of nation’s best

Like Streeter, new defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin was an internal promotion by Swinney. Goodwin has 10 years of experience at Clemson with a three-year stint with the Arizona Cardinals sprinkled in. He’s got big shoes to fill after Brent Venables, the Tigers’ DC since 2012, took the Oklahoma job.

Luckily, he’s got one of the most talented defenses in the country to work with. That starts along the defensive line with four potential All-Americans — Xavier Thomas and Myles Murphy off the edge and Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis on the interior.

You could make a strong case that those four, plus a stellar group of second-stringers, make up the best defensive line in college football.

There is a lot of turnover in the back seven, however. Veteran linebackers James Skalski and Baylon Spector, along with starting cornerbacks Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich, have all moved on. Nolan Turner, a longtime starter at safety, also won’t be back.

The remaining group at linebacker and safety still look pretty good. Trenton Simpson moves into a key role at linebacker while Andrew Mukuba could develop into a star at safety. If there’s one question on the defense, it’s probably cornerback. But when you have such a strong pass rush, it makes life much easier for the corners.

LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 06: Clemson Tigers defensive end Myles Murphy (98) lines up for a play during the college football game between the Clemson Tigers and the Louisville Cardinals on November 6, 2021, at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy has combined for 25 tackles for loss and 12 sacks over the past two seasons. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Biggest game: Oct. 1 vs. NC State

It's a bit underrated how tough the last month of Clemson's schedule has the potential to be, but a game much earlier on the calendar could be the most impactful in the long run.

After going to Wake Forest (the team that won the Atlantic Division last fall), Clemson hosts NC State. We project the Wolfpack as the biggest challenger to Clemson in the division and the ACC as a whole. NC State's defense should be stellar, and Devin Leary could be the best quarterback in the conference.

The Nov. 5 trip to Notre Dame won't be easy, but Clemson may not have a CFP berth in its sights without a win over NC State to get that leg up in the Atlantic standings.

Impact player: DE Myles Murphy

It’s hard to pick just one player off this defensive line, but let’s go with Murphy. Now a junior, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Murphy has combined for 76 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 12 sacks over his first two seasons at Clemson. Murphy has great burst and is adept at getting in the backfield to stop the run or get after the passer.

Murphy could be in line for a huge year, especially with Bryan Bresee back on the field at tackle. Bresee missed much of last season with a knee injury and also had offseason shoulder surgery. When he’s been on the field, he’s been a menace.


Pick: Under 10.5 (-130)

I’ve picked Clemson to win the ACC but I think the Tigers going 10-2 is a bit more likely of an outcome than 11-1 or 12-0. I’m not convinced the offense is all of a sudden going to revert back to its pre-2021 ways and I’m pretty high on some of the teams on the Tigers' schedule.

Closing out the season with Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and South Carolina is a pretty tough stretch. The Tigers also play NC State in October and the Wake Forest trip could be challenging if QB Sam Hartman is back in the lineup. I’m not betting this personally, but I slightly lean toward the under 10.5 wins here.