Sunday, June 29, 2014 1:03 PM
Can Clemson win 11 games in 2014?
by David Hood
Senior Writer

The Clemson football program achieved a first last season, winning 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. That stat is a tad misleading because the NCAA went to a 12-game schedule in 2006, giving programs one extra chance at a win.

However, the back-to-back 11 seasons are significant in that Clemson has had 11 wins or more in a season just five times in the school’s history – the 1948 team under Frank Howard went 11-0 and won the Gator Bowl by beating Missouri; Charley Pell (10) and Danny Ford (1) combined to win 11 games in 1978 as Clemson defeated Ohio St. in the Gator Bowl; Ford’s 1981 team went 12-0 and won the national championship; and Swinney has led the Tigers to consecutive 11-2 seasons and wins over LSU and Ohio St. in the bowl games.

Clemson didn’t register its first 10-win season until 1987 when Ford’s squad went 10-2, setting off a string of four consecutive 10-2 seasons. Three of those seasons were under Ford, and Ken Hatfield repeated the record in his first season in 1990. Overall, Clemson has had 10 seasons of 10 or more wins, and Swinney has three of those, winning 10 games during the ACC Championship season of 2011 and then 11 in 2012 and 2013.

Can the Tigers make it four consecutive seasons of 10 or 11 or even more wins in 2014? Absolutely. The defense should be one of the best that’s been seen around here in a long time, with a monstrous front four that is deep and talented, an All-American caliber linebacker in Tony Steward and a young but talented secondary that will only get better as the season progresses.

Yes, the offense is young and inexperienced in spots, but offensive coordinator Chad Morris doesn’t panic easy and he has a senior in quarterback Cole Stoudt who doesn’t get too high or too low, the kind of steady hand this offense will need as it endures what could be some early growing pains.

Here are the reasons Clemson can and will win 11 games for a third consecutive season.

*Talent? It’s everywhere, and while this team is young in spots, the youngsters are good. Remember names like MacKensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse, Wayne Gallman, Shaq Lawson, Ben Boulware, Artavis Scott, Kyrin Priester, Demarre Kitt and Deshaun Watson – each of those youngsters should make an impact at some point this season.

*Cole Stoudt. Everybody’s favorite player is the backup quarterback, and Clemson will have a pretty good one in Watson, the hyped 5-star wonder out of Gainesville, Ga. Watson can do it all. But he will have to wait his turn, just like Stoudt has waited.

I had one coach tell me that the hallmark of those good Alabama teams over the last six seasons or so has been a great defense coupled with a quarterback who doesn’t lose games – quarterbacks that go out and manage the game and don’t make the kinds of mistakes that lead to a loss. That might indeed be the gameplan for Clemson this season – let the defense do its thing and then let Stoudt and company wear down the opposing defense. Stoudt doesn’t rattle easy, and by all accounts is a student of the game.

If he throws an interception or gets pressure from the outside, don’t expect Stoudt to panic and fall apart. He is easy-going and won’t get too excited whether things or going good or bad. In other words, Stoudt is the perfect quarterback for the 2014 Tigers.

*The defense. The Tigers ranked 24th in points allowed at 22.2 points per game and led the nation in tackles for loss with 123. Except for Spencer Shuey, Quandon Christian and Bashaud Breeland, almost all of the stars are back, including a defensive line that just might be the best in the country.

Defensive end Vic Beasley only has to look down the road to Columbia to understand what happens when expectations and overconfidence collide with reality for a superstar defensive end. However, Beasley has proven in the past that he cares less about Beasley and more about his teammates, and he decided to forego the riches of the NFL for a chance at a senior season. That kind of attitude shows the kind of leadership Beasley – who isn’t the biggest rah-rah guy in the world – provides.

Don’t overlook veterans like Grady Jarrett, D.J. Reader, Corey Crawford, DeShawn Williams, Tavaris Barnes and Josh Watson, who all have a wealth of experience. Younger players that could make an impact are Shaq Lawson, Ebenezer Ogundeko and Scott Pagano. Clemson’s defensive line is in good hands this season.

The secondary has a veteran hand in Robert Smith, and while Jayron Kearse had his share of great moments followed by some not-so-good moments, he should only be better. The secondary also has a lot of talented youngsters like Alexander, Jadar Johnson, Adrian Baker, Cordrea Tankersley, Korrin Wiggins and T.J. Green. This group will be a lot better than people think.

Stephone Anthony will be one of the stars on Clemson’s defense, and he will joined by former 5-star recruit Tony Steward. Add in young players like Ben Boulware and Dorian O’Daniel – both players did well during the spring – and Clemson’s linebackers are in a good shape. B.J. Goodson, Kellen Jones and T.J. Burrell all have experience and will compete for playing time, so competition isn’t an issue in one of the deepest spots on the roster.

*The schedule. Does the schedule really scare you, beyond Georgia, Florida St. and South Carolina? The Tigers should be favored in the other nine games, and Swinney has done a good job of beating the teams he is supposed to beat. Win those nine, “upset” one of the above three and win a bowl game – the same scenario we’ve seen the last two seasons – and you have the wins needed.

Tomorrow, however, I take a look at the opposite side of the coin. There are issues, and there are holes on this team, holes that could prevent this team from achieving not only 11 wins, but maybe even prevent it from winning 10 games.

David Hood can be reached at davidhood@tigernet.com