SUNSET — It’s perfectly possible the 2015 Clemson team would compete strongly with, if not beat, the 2013 Clemson team.
The initial rankings won’t show it. While the Tigers started No. 8 two years ago, and rose quickly to become the third-ranked team in the country, this year’s edition is likely to start out somewhere in the mid-teens.
That’s an endorsement of three things: Clemson’s schedule (Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Florida State come to Death Valley), its quarterback (Deshaun Watson’s a trendy Heisman sleeper) and its pedigree (42 wins in four years.)
So, does Dabo Swinney think his team is better than it was last year, when it rode its No. 1 defense to 10 wins (including Louisville, South Carolina and Oklahoma despite a below-average offense)? He demurred, though he likes what he sees on paper.
“You’ve got to have talent, and we’ve got talent,” Swinney said Wednesday at his annual media golf outing. “I love our roster, but we’ve got a lot of guys who have to develop. That’s what fall camp’s all about.”
Multiple top-15 recruiting classes in a row, and a bevy of highly touted players ready to step into roles previously held by stopgaps on offense, mean a quickly gelling team could feasibly work its way up the rankings into the College Football Playoff conversation.
“I say it all the time, you can replace good players,” Swinney said. “Sammy Watkins leaves, and Artavis (Scott) shows up. Tajh (Boyd) leaves, and Deshaun shows up.”
Defense might be the source of greater concern, seeing as eight starters graduated.
“We’ve got to find out if the leadership’s going to be there when we need it,” Swinney said. “I knew, without a doubt, last year what we had defensively and it played out that way. This year, there’s more questions on some of the peripheral areas.”
Ammon Lakip is all but ruled out for the start of fall camp, which means Alex Spence, who accepted a grayshirt opportunity to arrive belatedly in 2015, is the frontrunner to take over the kicking position at least until Lakip’s status is settled.
Spence was an all-state kicker from Florence.
“We felt like (Spence) was one of the best kickers in the South, the best kicker in this state, when we signed him,” Swinney said. He’s excited about his opportunity.”
As for Lakip’s return, Swinney said, “Right now, it’s kind of on him to follow through on some things he has to do.”
If he had his druthers, Swinney would have preferred to have a proven senior protecting Watson’s backside. Instead, Isaiah Battle departed for the NFL supplemental draft, and Swinney’s sprinting toward the bright side.
“We wish Battle the best. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him that he’s got an opportunity to take this next step,” Swinney said. “It would have been great to have him here to make the transition to a guy like Mitch Hyatt, but we’re getting an opportunity to enter camp and get Mitch going.”
Battle faced on-and-off disciplinary action during his college career, including a one-game suspension for punching an N.C. State player in 2013 and sitting out the Syracuse game in 2014 for reasons that were never disclosed. He did fill in capably during the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl and was regarded as Clemson’s most consistent blocker his junior year.
“Battle was not going to sit here and tell you he was not always the most committed guy. We constantly had to challenge him,” Swinney said. “He had a long way to go, and I’m very proud of the progress he made. Wish we could have finished that off, but I respect the decision he made.
“We had some great moments with Isaiah, we had some not-so-great moments with Isaiah, and I have no doubt that Isaiah Battle is better because he came to Clemson.”
The last player Swinney had yet to comment on as far as disciplinary action, defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko, wasn’t expected to start right away but might have factored into the rotation.
“Ebo could have been a good player for us. But he’s not here with us anymore,” Swinney said. “We’ve got 18 defensive linemen on scholarship. That’ll be a nice group to line up and play.”
Ogundeko was arrested for credit card transaction fraud in May, and later transferred to Tennessee State.
“It really has been a good summer, but that’s kind of boring,” Swinney said. “I know you get a couple guys that steal all the headlines from a negative standpoint, a couple guys who don’t do what they’re supposed to do. And that’s unfortunate, because 98 percent of your guys really had a good summer.”