In only three growing pain seasons as the head coach of the Clemson Tigers, Dabo Swinney has done what Tommy Bowden could not accomplish in 10 years with the program: win an ACC Championship.
But despite this, Swinney took plenty of scrutiny in terms of his long term status as a head coach up until last season. And after a historically embarrassing 70-33 loss against West Virginia, the Tigers do have several red flags that could ultimately decide the course of the upcoming season. The Tigers are expected to compete with Florida State once again for the Atlantic Division title and possibly the ACC Championship.
This part of the Tigers was arguably the worst part of the defense last season. Missed tackles were evidenced in every game, and became a problem that former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele did not fix.
Tackling was a big factor in both the Tigers' wins and losses last season, and Clemson's poor tackling was especially evidenced against West Virginia, where the players proved unable to properly bring down any of the Mountaineers talented players on offense.
If tackling continues to be a problem for this defense, it could mean another long season for this Tiger defense.
The departure of pass rush specialist Andre Branch leaves the Tigers with no clear cut pass-rushing threat at defensive end. Mallicah Goodman has underachieved as a pass-rushing threat, and rising sophomore Corey Crawford is unproven with limited playing time in 2011.
But there is little depth behind these two—with Roderick Byers and Vic Beasley the main backups coming out of the spring. The Tigers will be bringing in defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Martin Aiken, who the Tigers hope could help provide some much needed depth for the Tigers at the end positions.
Last season, Branch never left the field because of the lack of depth. Now, the Tigers must build that depth to keep their defensive ends' legs fresh and their motors running.
The offense that exploded onto the scene with first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris will be tested. The offensive line must replace three starters that even struggled last year to protect quarterback Tajh Boyd and open holes in the running game for Andre Ellington.
Now, while the Tigers seem to have found a unit they are comfortable with starting in Week 1 against Auburn, they must now focus on building some sort of depth and developing a more aggressive line, as they were not always physical at the point of attack.
The offense can get even better in Year 2 of the Chad Morris Era...if the offensive line is able to provide those opportunities for the Tigers' playmakers on offense.
With the transfer of former Clemson running back Mike Bellamy, the Tigers are now left with four scholarship running backs, with starting back Andre Ellington coming back for his senior season after flirting with the NFL.
Behind Ellington, Clemson has a young, raw back in DJ Howard, junior reserve back Rod McDowell, and an unknown in freshman running back Zac Brooks, who is now likely to avoid a red-shirt because of Bellamy's departure.
With such young, unproven depth, along with Ellington's injury history, it is imperative that Ellington stay healthy and that both Howard and Brooks—who have more upside than McDowell at this point—develop in their backup roles. This is especially imperative in the case of Howard, who is entrenched as the primary backup behind Ellington, and who will be the main man if No. 23 goes down.