CLEMSON — Ah, summer. The season of soaring mercury levels and road construction delays, pollen counts and clichés spouted by college football coaches.
Before players can go out there, give 110 percent and get excited for another new season, there are the yearly assemblies of coaches and reporters for conference media days. The ACC takes its turn at the Westin Charlotte this week when Coastal Division teams reach the stage Thursday and Atlantic Division teams are featured on Friday.
But first for Clemson, the Tigers’ 10 full-time coaches will sit down with local reporters Tuesday amid the team’s annual retreat to The Reserve at Lake Keowee. For media, the day marks the one out of 365 each year in which the five assistant coaches who don’t coordinate offense, defense or recruiting have scheduled face-to-face meetings with writers and broadcasters.
So on Tuesday with local scribes and on Friday with the conference media, it will be up to Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney to carefully unfold a blanket, rinse it in cold water and throw it on media inquiries that dare to gush over Clemson’s remarkable 2015 season and its immense promise for 2016.
The Tigers went 14-1 last year, winning the ACC Championship and a College Football Playoff semifinal, and the argument could be made this year’s roster is even better and its schedule even easier. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is fully healthy and flanked by a bevy of playmakers in front of a steadily improving offensive line; while the defense will have to find some viable replacements for several NFL Draft selections, there are few offenses Clemson will face in 2016 that appear daunting on paper.
As such, the Tigers are currently fielding 8-to-1 odds in Las Vegas sports books to win the 2016 national championship, just a hair behind favorites Alabama (7-1) and Ohio State (15-2); no other team has odds below 12-1.
Before Swinney stands on a putting green in Sunrise or sits at a podium in Charlotte and opens his mouth, a healthy wager could be placed on his stance toward Clemson’s preseason expectations – in that they don’t count for anything, that the 2016 season is a new season and this year’s team is a new team.
Sure, as the old adage goes: yesterday’s touchdowns won’t win tomorrow’s games. But yesterday’s touchdowns will likely earn Clemson a top-five spot in the preseason polls, and possibly the No. 1 or No. 2 ranking to begin the year (which would set a program record.) Such a development would place a Swinney streak in peril: five straight seasons of Clemson finishing higher in the postseason polls than its preseason ranking, longest in the nation.
Potential hindrances in returning to the national championship game include lack of depth at offensive tackle, shaky special teams and no clearly dominant edge pass-rusher along with some question marks at linebacker, cornerback and safety. All those topics will be presented to Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables Tuesday.
It’s been a relatively quiet offseason on the player personnel front, so that is one subject that Swinney won’t have to address Tuesday. Last summer brought multiple suspensions, arrests or departures; Clemson has had no attrition since cornerback Kaleb Chalmers was dismissed for a drug arrest in mid-March.
The five coaches who will hold court for the only scheduled time all year Tuesday are defensive ends coach Marion Hobby, defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks, secondary coach Mike Reed, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell and tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Danny Pearman.
Hobby will be tasked with developing a viable reinforcement for Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. Reed needs to replace three drafted defensive backs, and Pearman leads the oft-criticized special teams still trying to shore up return coverage and find an explosive return man.
On Friday in Charlotte, Swinney will be joined at the dais by Watson and linebacker Ben Boulware. Besides the usual questions about the Tigers’ roster and expectations, topics sure to be explored include Clemson’s Oct. 29 trip to Florida State and the comments made this past week at SEC Media Days by former Clemson quarterback Chad Kelly, now the starter at Ole Miss who took a jab at Clemson’s stadium in referring to LSU’s home as “the real Death Valley.”
Fall camp is expected to begin the first week of August, and the Tigers’ 2016 season opener is Sept. 3 at Auburn.