Clemson football: 3 biggest offseason questions facing Dabo Swinney’s Tigers in 2021

Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers. (Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports)
Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers. (Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports) /
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D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson Tigers
D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson Tigers. (Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports) /

2. Are Miami, North Carolina closing the gap over in the ACC Coastal?

Unless Notre Dame is seriously considering joining the ACC full-time in all sports, it may take a while before any team is victorious in Charlotte besides Clemson. In the ACC Atlantic, as long as the Florida State Seminoles are rebuilding under second-year head coach Mike Norvell, Clemson will not be challenged in the division. Maybe by the North Carolina State Wolfpack, but that is it.

However, there are a few teams over the ACC Coastal who could be menacing next year. I am talking about the Miami Hurricanes and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Assuming the ACC goes back to its two divisions with Sven teams format, either Miami or North Carolina will present a formidable challenger for Clemson in the ACC title bout. The question is if they will close the gap.

North Carolina is coming off its first New Year’s Six Bowl in school history. Mack Brown’s team returns its star quarterback Sam Howell ahead of his true junior season. The Tar Heels could be a top-10 or 15 team all season long. As for Miami, Manny Diaz’s team is close. Assuming quarterback D’Eriq King recovers from his torn ACL, the ‘Canes should be in terrific shape in 2021.

Until Miami and North Carolina can continually recruit on Clemson’s level, there will exist a gap between the best team in the ACC and the rest of the best. However, the days of Clemson going undefeated annually in ACC play might be a thing of the past. The Tigers are still a great team, but the rest of the Power 5 conference is getting better around them. Clemson must prepare for that.

1. Can D.J. Uiagalelei follow Trevor Lawrence’s footsteps?

Oh, it is definitely going to happen. Do not kid yourselves. Clemson is going from arguably the greatest quarterback in school history in Trevor Lawrence to a guy who has only had two starts worth of experience. Granted, D.J. Uiagalelei is a former five-star himself and the heir apparent to the Clemson quarterbacking throne. However, there will be an adjustment period at the helm.

Clemson experienced something like this previously. Kelly Bryant took over for Deshaun Watson in 2017 and led the Tigers to the playoff. But midway through the 2018 campaign, Bryant eventually gave way to Lawrence and the rest is history. Could Uiagalelei go undefeated en route to a national championship in his first season as the starter? Yes, but he is 1-1 in his two career starts so far.

Keep in mind Clemson needed a second-half surge to hold off the Boston College Eagles mid-season. They also needed a tad more of a spark out of the true freshman vs. Notre Dame up in South Bend. Either way, this was significant starting experience for Uiagalelei. Hopefully, it will be enough to give him all the confidence in the world to go out and live up to lofty expectations.

While the drop-off from Lawrence to Uiagalelei will certainly happen, to what degree it happens is up for grabs. This is no slight on Uiagalelei, as it has more to do with going from the future No. 1 overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars to a five-star signal-caller who has yet to make his third career start at the program. Look for Uiagalelei to shine at Clemson, but allow the cake to bake.

Overall, Clemson should make it seven years in a row it will send a team to the College Football Playoff. Though the Tigers will likely be a top-two seed as it usually is, we need to see this team eviscerate the ACC opposition for us to know for sure that it can win big in January. Is this a national semifinalist team, a national runner-up squad or a future national championship group?

Clemson should have another great team, but will the 2021 team be the best in the country?

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