When former Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel first started at the ACC Network in 2019, he took a visit to Clemson and got a tour from former Clemson offensive lineman and fellow ACC Network college football analyst Eric Mac Lain.
“(He’s) like the mayor down there, I feel like,” Manuel said.
The Tigers had just won their second College Football Playoff national championship in three years the season prior, using a perfect 15-0 mark to get the job done.
Outside of a few changes here and there, Mac Lain is more than familiar with his way around the small, orange-centric town. Years after graduating, the 6-foot-5 North Carolina native’s commanding presence and friendly disposition is still recognizable to locals as well.
In contrast, the Tigers’ football program, facilities and public perception he once knew as a player in the early 2010s are nothing like what head coach Dabo Swinney has built things to be today.
Never in their wildest dreams could some of Swinney’s early Clemson teams have ever dreamed it would be like this.
“It’s been incredible to see this journey that, even (as) I reflect back to 2011 when I was being recruited and really my first year there, the vision that we had of what Clemson could become and what it could be, didn’t think it would be like this,” Mac Lain said. “What an amazing journey for coach Dabo Swinney, that staff to be able to stay together as long as they have and just the players. They just secured, two years ago, their first-ever No. 1 recruiting class, and to think of what is that going to look like four years from now, it’s been truly remarkable.”
Heading into the 2021 season, the Tigers will be looking to secure another run at a national championship right after what would be a seventh straight ACC title.
The question Clemson, and other teams in the league, face: Who (or what) can stop the squad from that goal?
Carolina on Clemson’s heels
During its recent run of ACC titles, Clemson has boasted a 46-3 record against conference opponents. The Tigers were on a 36-game winning streak against their league foes before falling to Notre Dame in double overtime, 47-40, last year. But the Fighting Irish had their fun in the ACC for one season and have gone back to an independent schedule.
That leaves Pittsburgh and Syracuse as the only conference teams to have wins over the Tigers during the six-year span. A win and possessing the ability to dethrone Clemson, however, are two different things.
When it comes down to it, ACC Network analyst Roddy Jones, who faced Clemson during his time as a running back at Georgia Tech (2008-11), believes that Miami and North Carolina could be contenders “from a functional standpoint.”
“I don’t anticipate anybody really challenging them significantly, but in a one-game scenario, you never know,” he explained. “I mean, they very well could get beat, but they’re not going to be. They’ll be close to double-digit favorites in every game in the ACC. But Carolina and Miami are coming along. They’re getting there.”
Tigers linebacker James Skalski also mentioned the Tar Heels as a team that could give Clemson a run for their money.
“Don’t all fool yourselves, everyone’s got players,” he added. “Everybody’s got dudes. ... When I played them two years ago, I think the whole O-line was like true freshmen and sophomores, so if they’re still there. I remember those cats. They were good, so I think they’ll have a great year.”
Skalski is correct.
Mack Brown’s Tar Heels return all five of their starters, who are an average of 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds. That should provide some comfort for quarterback Sam Howell, who is one of the early Heisman favorites along with Clemson signal caller D.J. Uiagalelei.
If they can pull out a win over the Tigers, it’ll be the first time since 2010, Swinney’s first full season as Clemson’s head coach.
Mac Lain sees having back-to-back games against NC State and Boston College as a potential stumbling block for his former squad. The Tigers go to Raleigh to take on the Wolfpack on Sept. 25 before returning home to play the Eagles. Boston College looked as though it would get the upset over the Tigers last year. A valiant second-half effort of 21 unanswered points and a shutout from the Tigers denied the Eagles of the opportunity.
“Devin Leary is fully healthy, and if he is truly going to be the guy, he’s going to want to put up numbers, especially in that game,” Mac Lain said of NC State’s quarterback. “Then of course we saw the Boston College game a year ago, what (quarterback) Phil Jurkovec can do and what he expects from himself, so that’s going to be a tough two-game stretch for the Tigers that’ll, it’ll be fun to watch.”
The case for Clemson in 2021
Cliches become cliches because of how often they’re used as well as because, more often than not, they’re true. The one about defense winning championships unanimously applies to Clemson.
The Tigers’ defensive line has been a focal point this offseason with expectations high for what it can accomplish this year.
“I had a chance to talk with (Tigers defensive end) K.J. Henry over the offseason. He’s spoken extremely high of that front seven they have coming back at Clemson, saying they’re going to be special,” Manuel said. “It’s one of the better defenses he’s been on.”
The group, which also includes senior Xavier Thomas and sophomores Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy alongside Henry, have drawn some comparisons to Clemson’s 2018 D-line. That group was highlighted by Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins. Together, they helped to set a school record of 54 sacks, also the first time in program history that the Tigers led the country in the category, in addition to recording a nation-leading 136 tackles for loss.
Ferrell, Lawrence and Wilkins all went in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, while Bryant was taken in the fourth.
“You look back at 2018, you look back at 2014. On paper, this team has all of those ingredients,” Mac Lain said. “ I think coach Swinney said the other day that there’s five or six guys that have started at defensive end that are on this roster, so the biggest thing that coach Swinney said when we were talking to him on my podcast is, can they be selfless? Can they be OK with not necessarily starting but still playing and having a big impact? So, I think the defensive line has a real shot to be special. They just have to do it.”
Jones took it a step further and emphasized the importance of both the offensive and defensive lines. There are high expectations for Uiagalelei, receivers Justyn Ross and Joseph Ngata as well as the rest of the skill players, but the guys in the trenches are the wind beneath Clemson’s wings.
“Clemson wears people out, in this league, on the offensive and defensive lines, especially defensive line,” Jones said. “I think they have the capability of doing that this year, so that’s going to be big.”
Tigers seeking seven in the ACC
Manuel flashes a smile as he notes that he never lost to Swinney and the Tigers as a starter during his time at Florida State (2009-12). Much can change in nine years, and it has.
The Seminoles’ last victory over Clemson came in 2014. In total, the Tigers have lost only four ACC games since then for six straight league crowns en route to five College Football Playoff appearances as the league’s representative.
The question heading into the fall: Will that change this year? Or better yet, who can change that this year?
“Clemson has their eyes on the prize and a perfect season is what they always strive for,” Mac Lain said, adding, “The great thing about college football is, any dog on any day could be the bigger one. The ball can bounce a weird way. It’s not a circle or a wheel. It can bounce strange. It can happen, so the excellence that Clemson expects, that they prepare for, it would be a hard thing to imagine.”