|Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who will be a sophomore, is one of Clemson's returning starters. (Getty Images)|
CLEMSON, S.C. -- There were a lot of firsts for Clemson football in 2011:
• Clemson beat Virginia Tech, the conference standard-bearer, not once but twice and won the school's first ACC championship in 20 years.
• After beating Virginia Tech the first time on Oct. 1, Clemson became the first ACC team to beat three consecutive opponents that were ranked in both major polls.
• Clemson played in the Orange Bowl, its first trip ever to a BCS game. It was the first time Clemson had played in Miami since the Tigers won the 1981 national championship there by beating Nebraska.
|More on Clemson Tigers|
|More college football coverage|
• In 2011 Clemson -- not Northwestern, not Duke, not Stanford -- had the best APR score among 120 FBS schools.
But outside of Pickens County, that is not how Clemson's 2011 football team is remembered these days. That's what happens when somebody hangs 70 on you in a bowl game.
Clemson's 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl is being treated here like a bad dream -- the sooner forgotten the better.
"It was not the way we wanted to end the season, but the best thing we can do is learn from it and move on," quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "And that is what we've done."
"We didn't reach all of our goals, but we still had a lot to celebrate -- and we did," coach Dabo Swinney said. "That football team did some things that had never been done here and some other things that hadn't been done in a long time. Even though we didn't play well in the bowl game, we're not going to forget that it was still a special season."
Swinney said it was easy for this team to turn the page to 2012. They just looked at who was coming back.
All-ACC center Dalton Freeman, who will receive his second degree from Clemson in August, returns to anchor the offensive line. Also back are Boyd and incomparable sophomore receiver Sammy Watkins, who was fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage as a true freshman. This season will be the first time since 1978 (Joe Bostic, Steve Fuller, Jerry Butler) that three first-team All-ACC players have returned to Clemson.
When it comes to skilled players, few teams can match Clemson's Boyd (3,828 yards passing), Watkins (82 catches, 1,219 yards), and running back Andre Ellington (1,178 yards). Ellington almost turned pro but decided (after some serious conversations with Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris) that his NFL stock would be improved by returning to play with Boyd and Watkins in an offense (33.57 ppg) that is just scratching the surface of its potential.
"He [Ellington] was my No. 1 recruit," said Morris, who rewrote the Clemson record books after bringing his spread offense from Tulsa. "There is so much more that he can learn and so many more ways that we can use him. We're looking forward to that."
It looks like Morris is just getting started. In the offseason, he took his offensive staff on a couple of important road trips. Clemson was already using elements of the Pistol offense but went to Nevada to meet with its inventor, Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault, to learn some of its subtleties.
"We want to be a little more creative in the run game," Morris said.
Then the Clemson offensive coaches went to Oklahoma State to study how Mike Gundy moved receiver Justin Blackmon around to create opportunities for other players. Blackmon was so good that defenses had to cheat in his direction, leaving them vulnerable in other areas. Morris sees Watkins in that same role.
"The bottom line is we can't do exactly what we did last season and think we're going to be successful," Morris said. "You have to scout the other team, but you also have to scout yourself. You have to grow and adapt. The coaching at this level is just too good."
So with good reason, there is a lot of optimism about the Clemson offense. But the defense has work to do.
There was, to put it bluntly, a philosophical difference between Swinney and his former defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele. Steele was old school and good at it -- he worked for Nick Saban before coming to Clemson. His defenses were complex and his handling of players to the point.
But Swinney, as a younger head coach, wanted a kinder, simpler hand on the wheel. And when Clemson gave up 70 in the bowl game and 169 points in its last four losses (Clemson lost four of its last six games), Swinney decided to make a change.
"Kevin Steele did a great job for us but there are times when programs need to adjust and adapt," Swinney said.
Enter former Oklahoma DC Brent Venables, who became available when OU's Bob Stoops brought his brother Mike (fired as head coach at Arizona) back to the defensive staff.
Venables still wants to be a head coach. In fact, he was in the discussion for the Clemson job when Swinney was tabbed to replace Tommy Bowden. After more than a decade at Oklahoma, Venables did not need to share the job again with Mike Stoops. It was time him to make a move.
"I'm excited about what Brent brings to the table," said Swinney. "We are young but we're pretty athletic on that side of the ball."
Over the years, Clemson has developed the reputation of being one of those teams that is just good enough to break your heart:
• In 2000, the Tigers started 8-0 and got their fan base excited by getting to No. 5 in the polls. But in the next game Georgia Tech scored with only seven seconds left to beat Clemson 31-28. The Tigers lost three of their last four games to finish 9-3.
• In 2008, the Tigers were a consensus preseason Top 10 with running backs C.J. Spiller and James Davis. But in the opening game against Alabama in Atlanta, Clemson got smacked in the mouth (34-10) and did not fight back. Bowden would not last the season and was replaced by Swinney as the interim head coach. That team finished 7-6.
• Last season Clemson started 8-0 and jumped to a No. 6 national ranking. But then Georgia Tech beat the Tigers 31-17 in Atlanta. Clemson's hopes for a national championship ended and the Tigers lost four of their last six, which included an inexplicable loss to N.C. State (37-13) and yet another loss to state rival South Carolina (34-13). Clemson got redemption by upsetting No. 3 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. But after the Tigers got some love as the ACC champions, they just fell apart against West Virginia.
In short, here is how one of my colleagues described Clemson: "I like Clemson. But I just don't trust them."
Swinney knows it is his job to change that perception.
"We took some big steps last season but everyone here knows we still have a long way to go," Swinney said. "But we're moving forward. I like where we're headed."
We'll find out early if Swinney is right. Clemson opens the season with Auburn in Atlanta on Sept. 1. Just 21 days later, the Tigers go to Florida State in a game that will probably decide the ACC's Atlantic Division.