Written by the Sports Network
2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The youngest coach in the ACC, the 42-year old Dabo Swinney was able to bring Clemson its first conference crown in 20 years, as the Tigers bounced back from a losing season in 2010 and delivered a 10-4 campaign, culminating in an Orange Bowl bid, the school's first in 30 years.
After winning the first eight games of the season, Clemson was viewed as an offensive juggernaut, fueled by a potent passing attack and the emergence of a true Heisman contender under center. Knocking off a trio of top-25 foes in succession (first ACC school to do that) with wins over Auburn (38-24), Florida State (35-30) and Virginia Tech (23-3) had Death Valley's denizen thinking about a national title.
However, the Tigers lost their steam down the stretch, dropping four of their last six games and derailing a national championship run. Despite losing the regular-season finale to rival South Carolina (34-13), Clemson already had a spot in the ACC Championship Game reserved. where the Tigers once again humbled Virginia Tech (38-10) to earn a BCS Bowl bid. Momentum did not carry over into the Orange Bowl and a promising season came to a crashing halt, with an embarrassing 70-33 pasting at the hands of West Virginia.
OFFENSE: In his first season as a starter, quarterback Tahj Boyd burst on the scene as the ACC's pre-eminent weapon, setting the conference record for TDs with 38 and becoming only the fourth player in ACC history to eclipse 4,000 yards in a season (4,026), en route to All-ACC First-Team honors. Boyd completed nearly 60 percent of his throws, with 33 TD passes, adding five more on the ground. His job was made a bit easier by freshman wideout Sammy Watkins, who was named the National Freshman of the Year, earning All-ACC First-Team honors as well, while setting conference freshman records with 82 receptions, for 1,219 yards and 12 TDs.
However, a May arrest forced Swinney to take action and he has recently imposed a two-game suspension for Watkins to start the year.
"I told Sammy this past May that there would be a high end (number of games) and a low end, and it would be up to him as to the length of his suspension. He has done everything we have asked and then some, so the two-game suspension is the low end. The game of football, or a game of football will never be more important to me than teaching young people important life lessons. I have learned that many times something that seems to be the worst thing that can happen to you can become the best thing. I know Sammy will learn from this and use this to make a difference in other people's lives. I look forward to having number-two back on the field soon."
For his part, Watkins has accepted his fate.
"I accept this suspension. I made a mistake and realized that when this first happened. One thing we learn in this program is that there are consequences for your actions. The entire summer has been a learning experience. I am ready to get past this and look forward to September 15 when I can return to game day in Death Valley."
Although Watkins established himself as the go-to-guy downfield for Clemson, fellow wideout DeAndre Hopkins (72 receptions, for 978 yards, five TDs) put up strong numbers as well. Hopkins will be needed to shoulder the workload early on in Watkins' absence.
The one glaring loss from last year is the departure of All-American tight end Dwayne Allen, who has moved on to the NFL. Still, with Boyd pulling the trigger and Watkins and Hopkins on the outside, the aerial assault should still be potent.
Despite a strong emphasis on the passing game, the Tigers were far from one- dimensional in 2011, as tailback Andre Ellington finished the year with 1,178 yards and 11 TDs. Ellington has produced his entire career, averaging nearly six yards per carry (5.8) in his first three seasons and more of the same is expected in 2012.
The offensive line will need to fill some holes early on, but senior center Dalton Freeman was an All-ACC First-Teamer last season and should be the unit's anchor up front. Junior Brandon Thomas (6-5, 300) is versatile and can play either tackle or guard.
DEFENSE: The Clemson defense, which was gashed in the Orange Bowl, returns seven starters from last year. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be charged with providing the Tigers with balance and making the defense as feared as the offense. Seven starters are back, but the four losses won't be easy to overcome. Star rush end Andre Branch (85 tackles, 17 TFLs, 10.5 sacks) was a monster in 2011, earning Second-Team All-American honors. The squad must also replace a strong inside presence with the departure of tackle Brandon Thompson (46 tackles, 2.5 sacks), while the secondary must replace cornerback Cody Sensabaugh (team-high 13 PBUs).
Clemson has been known for its strong play in the front seven recently, but it may be the secondary that is the strength of the Tigers early on. Three starters return back there, highlighted by top returning tackler Rashard Hall (89) at safety and Jonathan Meeks (three INTs) at cornerback.
Up front, the lone returning starter is junior Malliciah Goodman (59 tackles. two sacks), who hopes to build off a solid sophomore campaign. The linebacking corps has a bit more experience, with the return of seniors Corico Hawkins (80 tackles. 5.0 TFLs) and Jonathan Willard (75 tackles).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Clemson has stability in its place-kicking with the return of All-ACC Second-Team member Chris Catanzaro. The 6-foot-2 senior is coming off a junior season in which he was an effective 22-of-27 on field goal attempts with a long of 47 yards, while going 52-of-53 on PATs. Senior punter Spencer Benton doesn't have the strongest of resumes, but incoming freshman Bradley Pinion does, as he is the first CU punter to be tabbed a high school All-American since 1988.
OUTLOOK: The Tigers amassed 470 points in 2011, the seventh most in ACC history. They will need to match that production if they are to successfully defend their ACC crown.
The Tigers will open the season with a neutral site affair against Auburn in Atlanta, which won't be easy and could be a good measuring stick of just how Clemson will fare in 2012. The next two non-conference games are much more manageable at home against Ball State and Furman, while the non-conference slate and regular-season end against usual foe South Carolina in late November.
Clemson has the unenviable task of opening ACC play in Tallahassee, against preseason favorite Florida State. Other road contests in-conference include trips to Boston College, Wake Forest and Duke. The home slate features dates against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Maryland and NC State.
Clemson isn't going away anytime soon and with Venables bringing a fresh defensive look to Death Valley, matching last year's 10 wins is within reach. The offense will continue to be one of the ACC's best and Boyd and company could deliver a second straight conference crown if everything breaks right and the team weathers the early storm minus Watkins.