No. 9 Clemson: It's ACC title or bust, and Deshaun Watson's health is key (Dr. Saturday)


Dr. Saturday will unveil its preseason Top 25 team-by-team during the next 25 days. This list is based on returning starters, schedule and prospects. However, we all know that once the games begin, things can change very quickly. Still, we thought we’d give our best guess heading into the 2015 season. No. 9 Clemson 2014 record:  10-3, 6-2 ACC Returning starters: 7 offense; 3 defense [ Yahoo Sports Fantasy Football: Sign up and join a league today! ] 2015 Outlook: Clemson is coming off four straight seasons with double-digit wins. And with Jameis Winston off to the NFL and out of the equation at Florida State, the Tigers are a trendy pick to supplant the Seminoles for the ACC Atlantic Division crown. A lot of the hype surrounding the Tigers has to do with one player: sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. The ACC media picked Watson, who is coming back from a torn ACL, as the league’s preseason player of the year. Watson’s knee injury kept him out of spring practice, but he was given a clean bill of health in June and has been participating in preseason camp. Watson played in eight games and made just five starts last year, but he was still able to put up 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air while adding 200 yards and five more scores on the ground. Perhaps most impressive was Watson’s accuracy. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Watson completed 67.9 percent of his passes and threw only two interceptions. A steady run game would certainly help keep Watson off the turf. A solid group of backs – including sophomore Wayne Gallman (769 yards, 4 TDs in ’14) – will run behind an offensive line with four new starters. There could be some growing pains in store. Luckily, the Tigers open their season with Wofford and Appalachian State before a trip to Louisville, so the line has two games to get its feet wet. Plus, Mike Williams (57 catches, 1,030 yards, 6 TDs) and Artavis Scott (76 catches, 965 yards, 8 TDs) return at wideout, as do a slew of highly-rated youngsters like Trevion Thompson, a redshirt freshman, and Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud, both five-star true freshmen. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Brent Venables lost a whole lot of production from his No. 1 ranked 2014 defense. Still, the Tigers have plenty of talent. Shaq Lawson looks like the man who steps into Vic Beasley’s shoes at defensive end while the rest of the projected front seven have seen plenty of playing time over the past few seasons as backups. Jayron Kearse and Mackensie Alexander return at safety and corner, respectively, but the loss of veteran nickel back Korin Wiggins (torn ACL) is a big one considering Venables’ heavy use of the nickel package. The Tigers are 42-11 in the past four seasons but have only one league title to show for it. In a season that’s essentially ACC title or bust, Watson’s health is the key – especially with former walk-on Nick Schuessler, a redshirt junior, serving as Watson’s backup. The Tigers have a pretty tough schedule, too, but the majority of their tougher games – Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Florida State – are at home. If Dabo Swinney’s bunch can make it through that slate largely unscathed, a College Football Playoff berth could be in the cards.  Player to watch: Deshaun Watson, QB It has to be Watson. With Watson, Clemson looks like a 10 or 11 win team. If Watson is injured, the Tigers could be staring a 7-5 season in the face.  People forget how young Watson is, too. He's only a true sophomore with eight games of college experience, but the kid is incredibly poised and scarily accurate. Still, it's hard not to think that he could be running for his life from time to time playing behind four new starting offensive linemen. If the Tigers can work out the kinks up front early on and establish a solid running attack, the sky's the limit for Watson to hook up with those explosive playmakers downfield on a regular basis. Breakout player: Shaq Lawson, DE Theres a lot of production to replace on the defensive line, and junior Shaq Lawson could be the man to fill the void left by All-American Vic Beasley. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Lawson has just one start in his first two seasons with the program, but still has accumulated 79 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Lawson isn't strictly a pass-rusher, either. He is 40 pounds heavier than Beasley and is a guy who can be counted on to stuff the run as well as rush the quarterback.  Despite the one career start, Lawson is already a known commodity. The media picked Lawson as a preseason first-team All-ACC selection, so expectations are high.  Miss one of our Top 25? No. 10 Oregon,   No. 11 Georgia,   No. 12 Notre Dame,   No. 13 UCLA,   No. 14 LSU ,  No. 15 Georgia Tech ,  No. 16 Arkansas ,  No. 17 Ole Miss ,  No. 18 Arizona State ,  No. 19 Oklahoma ,  No. 20 Arizona ,  No. 21 Tennessee ,  No. 22 Missouri ,  No. 23 Stanford ,  No. 24 Boise State ,  No. 25 Wisconsin . For more Clemson news, visit . - - - - - - - Sam Cooper is a contributor for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter! Follow @SamDCooper


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