Clemson football: what to worry about and what not to worry about for 2022

Goodbye conversation season. Hello, sweat.

After hearing “Clemson, it’s over!” and “Clemson is back!” and everything else for months, the Tigers are getting into the real stuff this week. Their preseason camp opening day is set for Friday afternoon, and the Labor Day prime-time season opener against Georgia Tech is just over a month away.

Coach Dabo Swinney’s team is the ACC preseason championship favorite for the fifth straight year and eighth time in the last 10 years. But he also faces big questions over whether he still belongs to the ever-exclusive club of college football national championship contenders.

As Clemson inches closer to Sept. 5, the day he can finally start providing answers in the Chick-fil-A kickoff game, let’s take a look at three reasons for optimism and three reasons for concern about the Tigers’ fortunes in 2022.

Reason for Optimism: Elite Defense

Gone are the days of winning a national championship in brave mode…or are they? Georgia in 2021 paired a modest offense with a dizzying defense laden with NFL first-round picks to ride out the hump for its first national title in four decades.

The Bulldogs were, unsurprisingly, the best defense in the nation, limiting opponents to 10.2 points per game. It’s not the worst program for Clemson – who finished second in the nation with 14.8 points per game allowed in 2021 – to loose. Oh, and the entire Tigers defensive line is back.

Tackles Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis and finishes Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas lead a deep front four, while linebacker Trenton Simpson and safety Andrew Mukuba (the reigning conference defensive rookie of the year) further flesh out a loaded unit which, if necessary, could stand up for a plot offensive embezzlement.

Reason for concern: change of coordinator

The image of personnel consistency for years, Clemson finally encountered some turmoil in 2021 as offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables departed to become the head coaches of Virginia and Oklahoma, respectively.

And no matter how much Swinney sings the praises of new OC Brandon Streeter and new DC Wes Goodwin, anyone in college football can tell you that losing the two highest-paid assistant coaches in the nation — the two coveted candidates who had turned down Power Five offers to stay with Clemson in previous years – could hurt. A lot.

Streeter and Goodwin, who impressed in their bowling debut in December, inherit Clemson units loaded with top rookies and proven producers. Can they replicate the magic of their Broyles Award-winning predecessors, though? This season will test Swinney’s internal recruiting philosophy.

Reason for optimism: launch the game

Clemson in his first game of 2021: two rushing yards.

Clemson through four games in 2021: 99th in the nation in rushing yards per game.

Clemson in an undefeated November: 24th in the nation in rushing for 213 yards per game, with an instance of 265 yards (South Carolina) and another of 333 (Wake Forest).

The three on-field architects of that turnaround are back in 2022: presumptive starter Will Shipley (739 yards), Kobe Pace (641 yards) and Phil Mafah (292 yards). If Clemson’s offensive line continues its upward trajectory under first-year coach Thomas Austin, that’s a serious highlight. Shipley, a preseason first-team all-conference pick, should be especially exciting in the second year.

Reason for Concern: Quarterback Room

DJ Uiagalelei, by everyone’s admission, including his own, struggled in 2021 (2,246 yards, nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Football at its most crucial moments remains a quarterback game, and no team is going to challenge for a title with those kinds of call-up stats.

Swinney has been steadfast in his faith in Uiagalelei since day one, and the towering five-star former rookie enters 2022 with a new mindset and a new body (he’s lost around 30 pounds). Clemson is also betting on improving offensive health to help Uiagalelei, but the shadow of five-star rookie Cade Klubnik still lingers. If Uiagalelei struggles, how long will he start?

Reason for optimism: review

Clemson was 4-3 after an October 2021 loss to Pittsburgh. The Tigers lost no more, turning struggles into season-ending successes in the form of a 10-3 season that got them a workable tie-breaking scenario another appearance in the ACC title game. That didn’t happen, of course, but Clemson still enters 2022 on the Power Five’s longest winning streak (six games).

Despite the chaos, Clemson also posted double-digit wins for the 11th straight year, the second-longest streak in FBS history. In other words, things have slowly but surely evened out. Plus, raw talent matters. According to 247Sports research, 63% of Clemson players in 2022 are four- or five-star rookies, a “top-notch ratio” that historically indicates success and title contention. Clemson’s 63% mark is No. 1 in the ACC and No. 8 nationally.

Reason for concern: increased ACC

Yes, Clemson was the league media’s 2022 ACC Championship pick. But voters have never been less certain during the Tigers’ current run as preseason favorites.

NC State, which beat Clemson in Raleigh last season, won 38 championship votes; Wake Forest, the defending Atlantic Division champion, got four. Both also won votes for the division title.

Clemson faces these schools in back-to-back weeks — playing Wake Forest on Sept. 24, hosting NC State on Oct. 1 — and one mistake could derail their division title hopes (and therefore their ACC title hopes and their College hopes). Football Playoff and… well, you got it). The Tigers also close out their ACC roster with Coastal Division favorite Miami (eight preseason ACC champion votes!) on Nov. 19. And no one forgets their Nov. 5 prime-time rendezvous with Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Chapel Fowler has covered Clemson football, among other topics, for The State since June 2022. He is a native of Denver, North Carolina, a 2020 UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus, and an avid basketball player. with previous stops at the Fayetteville (NC) Observer and Chatham (NC) News + Recording. His work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the North Carolina Press Association, and the Associated College Press.

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