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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 2 Clemson has the pieces in place to stay on top

Clemson linebacker Baylon Spector, left, and wide receiver Brannon Spector leap as the Tigers run down the hill before a 2019 game. Both brothers are back this season.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent the summer breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 2 Clemson

Elite teams reload. Clemson is 79-7 with two championships over the past six years, but 2021 presents a huge challenge. Four-year starters Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne are no longer part of the landscape after winning a title together in 2018. New QB D.J. Uiagalelei has only two career starts under his belt, both last year — a win over Boston College and a double-overtime loss to Notre Dame. He threw for 781 yards in those two games. Senior Lyn-J Dixon is the most experienced returning running back with more than 1,300 career yards. The Tigers will be tested early, starting with the season opener against No. 4 Georgia.

Clemson was No. 1 in our preseason poll last year. The Tigers finished No. 2 in the final CFP rankings and No. 3 in the AP and coaches polls.

About the Tigers

2020: 10-2, 8-1 in the ACC — second place (one game back) in the regular season behind Notre Dame, to whom they lost 47-40 in double overtime in early November. Clemson beat the Fighting Irish 34-10 in the conference title game to earn a CFP bid but lost 49-28 to Ohio State in the national semifinals.

Coach: Dabo Swinney, 140-33, all in 12-plus seasons at Clemson. He won one national championship as a player (Alabama, 1992) and has won two as Clemson's coach (2016, 2018).

Returning starters: 15 (6 offense, 9 defense)

Shoes to fill: QB Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars, first overall pick of the NFL draft); RB Travis Etienne (Jaguars, 1st round); OL Jackson Carman (Bengals, 2nd);  WR Amari Rogers (Packers, 3rd); WR Cornell Powell (Chiefs, 5th)

Catching up

Clemson legend C.J Spiller was named running backs in coach in February, replacing Tony Elliott, who assumes the titles of assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. Former quarterback Tajh Boyd was hired as an analyst after working as a real estate agent the past four years. ... Defensive end Justin Foster announced in February that he was retiring. Complications from COVID-19 and asthma contributed to his decision. 

D.J. Uiagalelei has taken over as Clemson's quarterback after Trevor Lawrence was the No. 1 overall pick of this year's NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Uiagalelei started two games last season when Lawrence was out with COVID-19.

Returning leaders

Passing: D.J. Uiagalelei 78-117-914, 5/0 (2nd on team)

Rushing: Lyn-J Dixon 68-203-8 (2nd)

Receiving: TE Braden Galloway 27-369-2 (4th), E.J. Williams 24-306-2 (5th)

Tackles: LB Baylon Spector 72 (led team), S Nolan Turner 66 (2nd), S Joseph Charleston 55 (3rd)

Sacks: LB Baylon Spector 4½ (led team), DE K.J. Henry 3½ (T-2nd), LB LaVonta Bentley 3½ (T-2nd), DE Xavier Thomas 3½ (T-2nd)

Interceptions: S Nolan Turner 3 (led team), CB Andrew Booth Jr. 2 (T-2nd), CB Mario Goodrich (T-2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: G Matt Bockhort (2nd team), OT Jordan McFadden (hon. mention), G Will Putnam (hon. mention)

Defense: DL Bryan Bresee (1st), LB James Skalski (2nd), CB Andrew Booth (2nd), S Nolan Turner (2nd), DE Myles Murphy (hon. mention), LB Baylon Spector (hon. mention), S Lannden Zanders (hon. mention)

Special teams: K B.T. Potter (hon. mention)

FYI

How the pandemic affected Clemson: The Tigers ripped off seven straight wins to start the season before COVID-19 started to affect things. It was revealed before the showdown at No. 4 Notre Dame that Lawrence would miss the game after testing positive. The Tigers lost in double overtime. Elliott, the RBs coach, missed the CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl after testing positive. Swinney used video to address attendees at the annual  football banquet in January; he reportedly testing positive for the virus after the Sugar Bowl. Had the Tigers beaten Ohio State in the semifinals, Swinney’s status for the national championship game would have been a hot topic.

NIL moves: Forty-two Clemson players have appeared on Instagram stories with ads paid for by Tiger Moving, a Greenville, S.C.-based moving company. And both Will and Drew Swinney — Dabo Swinney's sons, who are Tigers wide receivers — signed a deal with apparel company Players Trunk to sell T-shirts.

Starts up front: Clemson's offensive line allowed only 20 sacks last season, the first time they have led the ACC in that category during Swinney's tenure. But LT Jackson Carman is gone. The Tigers are pinning their hopes on Jordan McFadden and Walker Parks, both of whom worked at LT this spring. Parks was a freshman All-American as Carman's understudy. The line will be anchored by senior G Matt Bockhorst, who got reps this spring at center, and junior Will Putnam.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Clemson ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Tigers ranked in 2019.

Scoring: T-3rd (2019 — 4th, +1 spot)

Scoring defense: 18th (3rd, -15)

Total offense: 10th (5th, -5)

Total defense: 15th (6th, -9)

Passing: 6th (23rd, +17)

Pass defense: 41st (23rd, -18)

Rushing: 75th (13th, -62)

Rush defense: 15th (19th, +4)

Sacks: 5th (13th, +8)

Interceptions: 9th (3rd, -6)

Red zone offense: 38th (40th, +2)

Red zone defense: 31st (19th, -12)

Turnover margin: 22nd (8th, -14)

Time of possession: 56th (61st, +5)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame: Irish should lean on Williams and the running game

No. 8 Cincinnati: Bearcats have risen to the Group of Five mountaintop

No. 7 Iowa State: Returning star power has Cyclones looking strong again

No. 6 Texas A&M: Aggies are set to make another run at a CFP berth

No. 5 Georgia: Bulldogs have reloaded after their NFL exodus

No. 4 Ohio State: Buckeyes part with NFL talent, but simply reload

No. 3 Oklahoma: Loaded Sooners look primed for another big year

No. 2 Clemson

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 1 team. Need a hint?

This school has won three Heisman trophies, but none of the winners has been a quarterback.