The last time Clemson entered a college football season as defending ACC champ was 2012. The Tigers and their star quarterback opened against Auburn. They won that game in Atlanta, but lost at Florida State to a bunch of players angrier than Jon Gruden on hold. Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles wrested control of the ACC for three straight years.
While Clemson’s defending ACC champions should be able to hurdle Auburn again this year, the season likely will turn on what happens on Oct. 29 in Tallahassee.
All 11 starters are back on offense for Florida State, led by star running back Dalvin Cook.
But Tajh Boyd, EJ Manuel and Jameis Winston are long gone and now Clemson has the quarterback edge, a certain Heisman finalist vs. some sort of Jimbo combo probably led by safe but limited veteran Sean Maguire and potentially outstanding redshirt freshman Deondre Francios.
Deshaun Watson means never having to say you’re worried.
The next most important thing: Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney either presides over the kind of team leadership necessary to realize a College Football Playoff runner-up is among the hunted, or he is determined to spend the off-season stressing the point.
Biggest concern coming out of spring practice?
“I don’t really have a major concern,” Swinney said Wednesday during a telephone news conference featuring ACC coaches. “I just think that we have a lot of work to do and we need that commitment this summer. I think championships are won when people aren’t looking. Championships are won when the stands are empty. I just want to see these guys take ownership individually and collectively and go have the type of summer that they need to have so that they can finish with no regrets.”
Clemson has a surprisingly young team, only 22 seniors and juniors.
Florida State is young too, just 12 seniors coming off a 10-3 season. But Tallahassee is going to be the biggest regular-season challenge for a Watson-led team.
With or without former Florida State quarterback Lee Corso dressing up like a Seminole.
Whether the Seminoles open with a loss to Ole Miss in Orlando or not, no matter if there is a stumble in an ACC game against Louisville, North Carolina or Miami.
Competition is what Fisher liked best about Florida State’s just concluded spring practice, which ended with an intrasquad game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando and included a Friday night concert by the Velcro Pygmies.
“We had a very wide-open spring in all places,” Fisher said Wednesday. “We made some significant improvements. We had a lot more offensive linemen to work with, which I think is very critical not only in their development but your team development.”
Injuries messed up Florida State blocking schemes last year. Left tackle Roderick Johnson was the only staple along a mish-mash offensive line. After a 23-13 loss at Clemson, where the Seminoles turned the ball over on downs after Cook couldn’t gain a yard on back-to-back carries, Florida State was among the nation’s eight worst teams in converting on third-and-3 or fewer yards.
Think Fisher and Co. will want to run the ball Oct. 29?
Clemson-Florida State has been an ESPN “GameDay” stop three of the last four years.
The teams have combined to win the last five ACC titles and North Carolina, Miami and Louisville probably aren’t good enough to get in the way this year.
The rivalry has the look of a playoff quarterfinal, perhaps for a while.
Clemson’s 2016 recruiting class finished in the top 14 of recruiting rankings compiled by ESPN, Rivals, Scout, 247 Sports, Bleacher Report and Prep Stars.
Florida State was in the top three on every list.
Watson has never lost a regular-season college football game he has started and completed. Program-wide, the Tigers ooze offseason confidence unlike anything since the Danny Ford prime of the 1980s.
The Seminoles are very ticked off.
Clemson has just one win in Tallahassee (2006) since Florida State joined the ACC.
It’s enough to make players on both teams occasionally peek past openers against SEC West opponents as everyone aims for a 2016 season with no regrets.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff