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Meet Clemson: Dabo Swinney has the Tigers ready for prime time

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

We knew Clemson would be good in 2015, and that it could be good enough to win the Atlantic Division if it could keep Deshaun Watson healthy. What most of us didn't figure was that the Tigers' re-load on defense would prove so effortless.

Watson is healthy--or as healthy as one can be at this stage of a football season, at least. The defense is playing at an elite level, just as it did a season ago. The result: Clemson's emergence, somewhat surprisingly, as a juggernaut that is obviously the class of the ACC. Florida State was still the overwhelming pick to win the league before the season began, but it isn't Clemson showing the strains of roster turnover, it's the Seminoles.

(Edit: Just kidding--turns out I don't know what year it is.)

Clemson Offense Off. S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 11
6.2 (35) 4.9 (36) 8.0 (36)
2014 73 5.4 (85) 3.5 (108) 7.5 (50)

Watson was brilliant in his time under center in 2014 but missed a significant chunk of the season because of a broken finger and an ACL injury. And remember, he wasn't even the starter coming out of camp--that was Cole Stoudt, who eventually gave way to Watson three weeks into the season.

The impact on Clemson's passing offense was significant. Watson averaged 10.7 yards per attempt, completed nearly 68% of his throws and passed for 14 touchdowns against two interceptions. Stoudt, on the other hand, threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9) while averaging a paltry 6.3 yards per attempt. He threw three interceptions in the Tigers' loss to Georgia Tech, two of which were returned for scores.

Watson put the injuries behind him, and not surprisingly, the Clemson offense is better because of that. He's not quite matching his incredible freshman season and has been more prone to mistakes, but he's also completing over 69% of his passes while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. And he's the team's second-leading rusher with 332 yards on 5.2 per carry.

With Watson leading the way, Clemson's offense is up 62 spots in offensive S&P+ while improving its per-play output from 5.4 yards to 6.2.

Couple that improvement with the monster in the table below and you have a national title contender.

Clemson Defense Def. S&P+ national rank Yds Allowed/Play
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Rush
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 4
4.1 (6) 2.9 (6) 5.9 (21)
2014 2 4.0 (1) 3.0 (3) 5.3 (1)

I combed through the advanced stats in an effort to find some hint of a weakness to this defense, but alas, it was entirely in vain. I mean look at these drive-based numbers. They lead the country in first down rate, which is the the "percentage of opponent drives that result in at least one first down or touchdown." The defensive line has been a monster.

The only Clemson opponent to any any noteworthy success against this defense was Notre Dame, which has the talent to equal the Tigers in many spots. NC State, um, does not. But hey, who knows, man. Let Jacoby Brissett put his magic dance pants on and let's see what surprises he's got left.

It's gonna be Halloween so it feels like something strange has to happen, but it's gonna be tough sledding, no doubtin' about that. So bring ya guts, watch your keys, maintain eye discipline and gap responsibility, and let's go see about a football game.