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‘Little ol’ Clemson’ loaded for another title run
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‘Little ol’ Clemson’ loaded for another title run

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney boasted Thursday that “little ol’ Clemson” is the best college football program when it comes to social media.

Hold on. Had Swinney just referred to his powerhouse program as “little ol’ Clemson?”

“Well, I think we only got about 150,000 alumni living. That's pretty little compared to most places,” Swinney said at ACC football media days. “We've got the biggest stadium per capita in the smallest town.

“So we're a big ol’ program in a little ol’ town.”

Clemson is indeed a “big ol’ program.”

The Tigers have won the ACC title and have advanced to the College Football Playoff in each of the past six seasons. They made the CFP title game four times in that span, winning the crown twice.

Clemson lost five of last year's standouts to the NFL Draft, including quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, but the Tigers are confident they can win another league title and be back in the College Football Playoff.

“One hundred percent," linebacker James Skalski said. “Every year, that's what we think. … We've got everything we need.”

“At Clemson, we reload every year,” quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “We lose somebody, but we have somebody ready to fill in right after they leave. So even though we have a lot of losses on offense, I feel like we're going to be just as good as we were last year — maybe better.”

The Athlon Sports and Lindy's Sports preview magazines have each ranked Clemson No. 2 in its preseason Top 25, right behind Alabama.

Clemson went 10-2 last season, when the Tigers beat Notre Dame in the ACC title game before losing to Ohio State 49-28 in the CFP semifinals.

The Tigers will get a stern test in this season's opener. They will face Georgia, which is ranked No. 4 nationally by Lindy's Sports and No. 5 by Athlon Sports, on Sept. 4 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

“They may be the best team in the country,” Swinney said of the Bulldogs.

“We're happy we get that caliber of opponent so that we can hopefully prove some people wrong,” Skalski said.

Wait, the Tigers actually feel they need to prove people wrong?

“We got punched in the mouth versus Ohio State,” said Skalski, who is back for a sixth season at Clemson. “Georgia [has a] similar mentality as a team — run game, physical, attack mode. So I think we can [get rid of] … any doubt that we're soft, not physical enough, not experienced enough. We're going to prove those people wrong Sept. 4.”

Skalski is one of nine starters back on defense.

The defense also returns former starting defensive end Justin Foster, who did not play last year because of long-term COVID-19 symptoms, and defensive end Xavier Thomas, who was limited to seven games last year for the same reason.

“We've got a lot of dudes at every single level, so I feel so good about every single aspect of the defense,” said Skalski, who made the All-ACC second team last year.

Only four starters are back from last year's offense.

Lawrence is no longer the team's star, having been chosen by Jacksonville with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. He threw for 3,153 yards last season, earning ACC player of the year honors.

But Uiagalelei was impressive last season, when he completed 78 of 117 passes for 914 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Uiagalelei started two games last year when Lawrence was sidelined because of COVID-19. He threw for 342 yards in a win over Boston College and for 439 yards in an overtime loss to Notre Dame.

“I had a great time playing those two games, so I definitely have a little bit of a comfort level,” he said. “I got my feet wet playing last year.”

The Tigers welcome back receiver Justyn Ross, who missed last season because of spinal surgery. He has 112 catches for 1,865 yards in his career.

“Having him back out there is amazing,” Uiagalelei said.

The Tigers' ground game no longer boasts Etienne, who set the ACC career rushing record with 4,952 yards. But Uiagalelei is not fretting.

“Even though we lost the leading ACC rusher in Travis Etienne — an amazing player — we have a lot of young guys ready to step up,” Uiagalelei said. “Were not going to fall off.”

Despite the presence of Etienne, Clemson ranked just 11th in the ACC in rushing offense (153.8 ypg) last year.

The Tigers hope to do a better job of blocking for the running backs this year.

“We're better up front in the offensive line,” Swinney said. “We've developed well and we recruited well. We've got some new pieces there.”

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Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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