College football Top 25: Will a new-look offense propel No. 8 Clemson back to the CFP?

With the 2023 college football season fast approaching, Yahoo Sports is rolling out our annual Top 25. We revealed Nos. 11 through 25 in three parts and are now counting down from No. 10 to No. 1 in the days leading up to the official start of the season on Aug. 26.

Previously: 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, No. 10 Texas, No. 9 Florida State

No. 8 Clemson

  • 2022 record: 11-3 (8-0 ACC)

  • National title odds: +1800

  • Over/under: 9.5 wins

Clemson made six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances between 2015 and 2020 with two national championships along the way. But in the last two seasons, Clemson has not played up to that standard — particularly on offense.

The Tigers went 10-3 in 2021 and then 11-3 last year as the offense routinely underwhelmed. The program’s six-year streak of ACC championships came to an end in 2021, but the Tigers returned to the top of the league last fall. Even with another conference title, it was still a season that featured a blowout loss at Notre Dame, the program’s first loss to South Carolina since 2013 and then a beatdown at the hands of Tennessee in the Orange Bowl.

Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney has long been resistant to change in his program, but he relented this offseason by going outside of his coaching tree to find a new offensive coordinator — Garrett Riley from TCU.

Will the changes Riley implements on offense be enough to keep Clemson atop the ACC? And can the new-look offense propel the Tigers back into the College Football Playoff picture?

The defense should be excellent, but is it fair to wonder about the overall depth of the Tigers? Swinney is one of the only coaches who does not use the transfer portal to add to his roster. Clemson’s top competitor in the ACC, Florida State, has emerged from a major rut thanks in part to an array of upgrades made via the transfer market.

With questions at a few positions, that’s a stance from Swinney that could ultimately put a cap on Clemson’s potential in 2023.

Will new starting QB Cade Klubnik live up to the hype?

When Trevor Lawrence left Clemson for the NFL, there wasn’t expected to be much of a drop-off at quarterback with D.J. Uiagalelei waiting in the wings. After all, Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns in his lone start in 2020, Lawrence’s final season on campus.

But Uiagalelei could just never replicate that level of success over the last two seasons. He wasn’t at fault alone. The receiving corps was average at best and the scheme, to put it mildly, was unimaginative.

Uiagalelei definitely improved from 2021 to 2022, but Swinney pulled the plug after a miserable 8-of-29 for 99 yards performance in the loss to South Carolina. The ball was given to prized freshman Cade Klubnik for the ACC title game and the Orange Bowl.

Klubnik looked the part in the ACC title game, completing 20-of-24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a score in the 39-10 win over North Carolina. The Orange Bowl vs. Tennessee was a different story as the Tigers continually sputtered in Vols’ territory. A lot was put on Klubnik’s plate in that game (perhaps too much), and he was not ready as the Tigers fell 31-14.

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik took over the starting spot late last season as a freshman, and he did enough to earn the spot for the 2023 season. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik took over the starting spot late last season as a freshman, and he did enough to earn the spot for the 2023 season. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Uiagalelei transferred to Oregon State for a fresh start, so Klubnik has been the guy all offseason and has been working to familiarize himself with Riley’s offense. Fans are expecting big things from Klubnik, and it’s hard not to expect a better passing game. Riley won’t abandon the run, either, but he will mix run concepts into more of an Air Raid-style attack.

It should benefit Klubnik, and the running back duo of Will Shipley and Phil Mafah will have the chance to flourish behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The main question on offense still lies with the receivers. Antonio Williams and Beaux Collins should be the top targets for Klubnik with Cole Turner and Adam Randall also in the mix. And don’t forget about Jake Briningstool, an underrated weapon at tight end.

If this offense improves, the Clemson defense won’t have to shoulder such a heavy load.

Can Clemson overcome major losses on the defensive line?

After 10 seasons, Brent Venables left Clemson to become the head coach at Oklahoma a year ago. Venables was Clemson’s longtime defensive coordinator, and Swinney decided to stay in-house and promote Wes Goodwin into Venables' role.

The Tigers were certainly good on defense, but maybe did not quite play at the elite level we’d previously seen under Venables. And now they have to replace three defensive linemen who were drafted into the NFL — Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and KJ Henry.

Clemson churns out NFL defensive linemen on a yearly basis, but should we automatically assume the Tigers will be just as good in 2023?

Tyler Davis will anchor the middle of Clemson's defensive line as one of the unit's key returners. But the Tigers are breaking in a lot of new players around him. (AP Photo/Mark Stockwell)
Tyler Davis will anchor the middle of Clemson's defensive line as one of the unit's key returners. But the Tigers are breaking in a lot of new players around him. (AP Photo/Mark Stockwell)

There's no concern in the middle with Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro returning at defensive tackle. Payton Page and Peter Woods, a promising true freshman, will also be in the rotation. But who is going to rush the passer?

Xavier Thomas is back for another year, but he has struggled to stay on the field. Justin Mascoll, a longtime rotational player for the Tigers, has the chance to move into a more prominent role. And then there are a slew of young edge rushers trying to work their way up the depth chart, but it’s hard to project who will make an impact.

Elsewhere on the defense, Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. make up one of the best linebacker duos in the country. And then the secondary should be improved after experiencing some growing pains last fall. The Tigers are loaded at safety with Andrew Mukuba, Jalyn Phillips and R.J. Mickens. Nate Wiggins will start at one cornerback spot with senior Sheridan Jones and sophomore Toriano Pride competing on the other side.

Despite some questions about the defensive end group, this is one of the best defenses in the country.

Biggest game: Sept. 23 vs. Florida State

It’s a shame this showdown between the ACC’s two best teams comes so early in the season.

Clemson, which opens with Duke, Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic, should go into this game with a 3-0 record. FSU has a high-profile opener vs. LSU and then a potentially tricky trip to Boston College in Week 3. In the long run of the season, this head-to-head matchup will likely have a major impact on the ACC race and maybe even the CFP.

Impact player: RB Will Shipley

Clemson’s passing game hasn’t presented all that much of a threat the past two seasons, so Shipley has often been faced with heavy boxes from opposing defenses. The adjustment in offensive scheme could free up Shipley for some more explosive runs in 2023.

Shipley ran for 1,182 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall. He was also a weapon in the passing game as he caught 38 balls for 242 yards as a safety valve for the Clemson quarterbacks. Expect Riley to use Shipley more creatively than Clemson has in the past. He’s a versatile weapon who should emerge as the ACC’s best running back.


Pick: Over 9.5 wins

Clemson’s schedule works out well for a 10- or 11-win campaign. The Tigers’ two toughest games — Florida State and Notre Dame — will be played at home. There are a few tricky road games along the way, including going to Miami, NC State and South Carolina, but the Tigers could end up being favored in all 12 regular season games.