CLEMSON - So Clemson's defense was better this year. It improved. That's safe to say. Really safe. Too safe.
"I don't even know that great improvement is the correct word," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Extraordinary improvement is probably more fair for the type of improvement we made defensively."
It wasn't always pretty, it wasn't always perfect. Florida State made mincemeat of the Tigers, carving up Clemson for 565 total yards, and Georgia, Georgia Tech and Ohio State also got theirs.
That's sort of the point, though: the Bulldogs, Yellow Jackets and Buckeyes got theirs, putting up 35, 31 and 35 points. But Clemson survived some shootouts - not without the assistance of a few clutch stops by the formerly untrustworthy defense.
"At the right time, we made the perfect plays at the end of the game," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said after the Orange Bowl win, 40-35 over Ohio State. "Just so happy for those guys. Certainly for our team, it's a validation victory . we belong. We've earned that right. We're still working. We're a work in progress, but we're pretty good too."
Even the only loss Clemson suffered to a non-national champion, that dreaded fifth straight setback to South Carolina, doesn't fall on the defense, which could only be blamed for never coaxing Connor Shaw into a careless mistake. The Gamecocks collected just 318 total yards, capitalizing on six turnovers offered up by the Tigers.
The final figures say Clemson shaved 40 yards per game off its season average, ranking No. 24 in the country last season in total defense (356.7 yards.) Only FSU and Clemson finished with top-25 units in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense.
And while Clemson's offense enters an uncertain transition period - who'll throw the deep ball, with Tajh Boyd gone? Who'll catch them, with no more Sammy Watkins or Martavis Bryant? - the question marks are far fewer for Venables than he faced a year ago.
The entire defensive line returns in 2014. Everybody. A luxury, considering All-American defensive end Vic Beasley (23 tackles for a loss) made a mildly surprising decision to return for his senior year, while bookend Corey Crawford did the same and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett never considered leaving.
Throw in improving youngsters DeShawn Williams in the middle and Shaq Lawson off the edge, and this front four will have mammoth expectations next fall.
"Definitely, that's our goal to be the best in the nation," Beasley said. "We led the country in tackles for loss (123), so we plan to do that again next year."
One of Clemson's two primary linebackers has graduated (Spencer Shuey), but Stephone Anthony also briefly mulled heading to the NFL Draft before opting for one more year at Clemson. Anthony led the Tigers with 131 tackles.
Swinney took glee in seeing his offseason proclamations come to fruition.
"I know y'all thought I was crazy back in the fall when I told you our front seven was going to be pretty good, even though nobody knew anybody's name," Swinney said Jan. 11. "But now everybody knows who Grady Jarrett is. Everybody knows who Corey Crawford is. Everybody knows who Vic Beasley is. A young Shaq Lawson emerged. So our front seven was impressive and we got most of those guys back."
Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins was granted a medical redshirt, keeping a full three remaining years of eligibility after being injured in a car wreck Sept. 20 in western North Carolina. Watkins started the 2013 opener against Georgia.
"Carlos is good and ready to go," Swinney said. "I'm excited about getting him back in the fold."
Defensive end Dane Rogers, who was in the car with Watkins, also got a medical redshirt, as did defensive tackle Kevin Dodd (toe) and linebacker Kellen Jones (ACL.) All are expected to ease their way into spring practices.
It's the back end that will command the spring ball and fall camp headlines, as Venables and second-year defensive backs coach Mike Reed sort through the cornerback spots vacated by cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson.
Backups Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters return, joined by four freshmen who redshirted last year (Mackensie Alexander, Adrian Baker, Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond.)
Strong safety Robert Smith (Woodland) started every game last year, with plenty of experience next to Travis Blanks, who hopes to be ready for the 2014 opener after tearing his ACL Nov. 23, and rookie Jayron Kearse.
Clemson's pass defense rated No. 16 in the country.
"Our secondary improved. Still not where we need it to be, but improved greatly," Swinney said. "We've got some really good young talent that's emerging ... I like our personnel and it's going to be exciting."
For the most part, Clemson will roll with the current defensive roster rather than utilize immediate reinforcements. The Tigers have edge rusher Chris Register signed plus five verbal commitments; according to Rivals.com, none have higher than a three-star rating.