As the Clemson Tigers are off to enjoy the holidays before they head to Miami for their first ever BCS Bowl against the West Virginia Mountaineers, let us take some time to reflect upon their progress this season.
Despite a losing season in 2010, the Tigers, in their first year under an almost entirely new offensive staff, including a new offensive coordinator in Chad Morris, managed to not only win the Atlantic Division for the second time in three years, but also routed the Virginia Tech Hokies in Charlotte to win the ACC Championship in Dabo Swinney's third year as head coach.
With a very young team to work with, this year has been pretty good to the Tigers.
With another year gone on, Swinney and his Tigers have some thinking to do and are contemplating their New Year's resolutions and what they may do better to get back to Charlotte and beyond.
One New Year's resolution for this coaching staff will be to toughen up what will be a young and mostly inexperienced offensive line, with guard Brandon Thomas having the most experience, along with center Dalton Freeman, should he forgo the NFL Draft.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris and offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell have both stated that they plan to make the finesse play of previous Clemson offensive lines a thing of the past, and will be challenging the offensive line to toughen up during spring practice and in the fall.
With uncertainty at most of the positions along the line, a solid starting five may not be decided until fall camp, when several highly touted freshmen may have their say about competing for a starting spot.
As was the case with the offensive line, the Clemson coaching staff will be pushing the defensive line to become a tougher unit up front, as they've lost three of four starters heading into 2012.
With the departure of defensive tackles Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore, the Tigers are left with young, inexperienced defensive tackles, with Tyler Shatley and Deshawn Williams having the most experience out of the returning defensive linemen. Behind them lie a host of untested youth that defensive line coaches Marion Hobby and Dan Brooks will look to for some breakthroughs in spring and fall camp.
At defensive end, the most experienced returners will be Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford, who showed plenty of potential in his freshman year. There is, however, a question of depth behind the two that must be shored up if the Tigers want to get their pass rush back without Andre Branch on the outside.
This entire group must step it up as a unit that took a couple of steps back in 2011.
With starting running back Andre Ellington considering declaring for the NFL, and with only two active running backs behind him, coupled with a questionable Mike Bellamy, the Tigers resolve to shore up depth at running back for 2012 and beyond.
Freshman running back DJ Howard proved himself a capable backup, though he may not be ready for too expanded a role, as seen in their 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech in his first career start. Freshman Mike Bellamy has had too many problems on and off the field, and has been suspended indefinitely from the team. His future status remains uncertain.
Rod McDowell has not been much of a factor in his first two years, and is not a long-term answer for the Tigers.
To shore up depth, the Tigers will be looking for progress from Howard and McDowell, while also hoping to pick up on some key prospects in recruiting, such as running back Todd Gurley, while also hoping that Ellington sticks around for one more year to help get this group together.
Next to the offensive line, this group has the most uncertainty on the offensive side of the ball.
If there was one thing about Clemson's young defense that faltered, it was their inability to contain running quarterbacks that made the difference in their three losses this season.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has begun to feel the heat as defensive coordinator after blowout losses to Georgia Tech and South Carolina that saw both teams' quarterbacks rush for over 100 yards and have their way with Clemson's front seven. In fact, Clemson has resolved to get better at containing running quarterbacks.
With these quarterbacks, the defense takes bad angles, doesn't wrap up and fails to recognize who has the ball on zone read plays (i.e. South Carolina). If the Clemson defense gets its act together against mobile quarterbacks, it can give the Tiger defense the lift it needs to become a top-25 defense again.
If there was one weakness on this new and improved Clemson offense, it would have to be the inability to consistently convert on short-yardage situations. Clemson was inconsistent all season, and never really had any set situations that solved the problem.
This is partially attributed to the offensive line play, especially at guard, where push is especially needed to get those tough yards between the tackles. Clemson has resolved to get a tougher offensive line in 2012 and if that resolution holds true, short-yardage situations will get better.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd can also learn to improve on quarterback sneaks in 4th-and-inches situations as well.
The Clemson defensive staff has also resolved to improve on the simpler fundamentals, like tackling, which plagued the Tigers all season long, especially with the linebackers and defensive backs. There were too many times this season where the defense gave up too many yards on big plays simply because of missed tackles on the quarterback, in the backfield and in the secondary.
If you shore up the tackling issues this Clemson defense had and improve them in 2012, this group will see better overall numbers, especially in the running game.
As has been the case for some time now, the Clemson defense has not been able to stop the run consistently enough, which has been the Achilles heel of an aggressive Clemson defense. This unit has been very susceptible to draws and zone reads in the Kevin Steele defense for nigh on three seasons now.
One of Clemson's New Years resolutions is to improve in this department in stopping or containing the run and getting their offense back onto the field sooner. This proved to be the difference in losses to both Georgia Tech and South Carolina this year.
For the first time in a while, the Clemson linebackers look like they will be productive, given the right kind of coaching and upside they showed throughout the season. While the group still showed some inconsistency, freshmen like Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward showed that they have the ability to help anchor Clemson's linebackers for the next few seasons.
One of Clemson's New Year's resolutions will be to continue the aggressive and disciplined play the linebackers showed in the ACC Championship Game, shutting down the NCAA's leading rusher in Virginia Tech's David Wilson.
If Steele can capitalize on their opportunistic play from their 38-10 victory and carry it over into the orange Bowl, Steele has the opportunity to take this defense higher in the spring and fall camps.
Perhaps a surprising unit that underperformed this season was the secondary, who, despite their youth at the position, had plenty of praise coming out of the spring and the fall. The secondary gave up more big plays in the passing game than fans would like, made games closer than they should have been and were not very opportunistic or instinctive in coverage.
Safety Rashard Hall played hurt most of the season, while Jonathan Meeks had his share of ups and downs at the opposite safety position. The corner positions saw a steady rotation of Xavier Brewer, Coty Sensabaugh and Bashaud Breeland as the starters, with Darius Robinson and Martin Jenkins getting some time in.
With the youth at corner, this group can only get better as they mature and hopefully get more instinctive at the position. Hopefully Hall gets healthier and Meeks gets more consistent in deep coverage and in run support.
But most of all, Clemson's biggest New Year's resolution will be to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump that always seems to plague teams who find this kind of success, and how they will deal with the inevitable target that is now on their back in the ACC.
In 2010, Clemson was unable to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump of Dabo Swinney's second year as head coach, going 6-7 and giving Clemson its first losing season in over a decade. With a more maturing Clemson team heading into 2012, plus a top-10 caliber recruiting class, the Tigers look to avoid the dreaded slump and aim to return to the ACC Championship with some new tricks and innovations.