In a special college edition of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” No. 9 Clemson travels to face Duke for a season-opening Atlantic Coast Conference clash in Durham, N.C.
The matchup marks Clemson’s first step in defending its ACC crown.
For Duke, it’s an opportunity to show that last year’s campaign — the first under coach Mike Elko — wasn’t a fluke.
The Blue Devils went 9-4 under Elko, their highest win total since 2014 and just the seventh time in program history that they won at least nine games.
A victory over Clemson — which has long dominated the league — would go along way in boosting expectations and credibility for Duke.
“They’ve accomplished as much as any ACC program has since the ACC has come together like this in this manner,” Elko said of Clemson. “To get them in the opener … is an opportunity for our program, but it’s also a huge challenge.”
Clemson went 11-3 last season, its 14th full campaign under Dabo Swinney.
While most programs would be elated to have an 11-win season, some Tigers fans might consider it to be underwhelming considering Clemson didn’t make the College Football Playoff for the second straight year. The Tigers also lost their bowl game to Tennessee and fell in their regular-season finale to in-state rival South Carolina, a result that snapped a seven-game winning streak over the Gamecocks.
The Tigers realize that expectations are always high.
“This is not just a regular school where you try to get six wins or 10 wins or something like that,” defensive end Xavier Thomas told The Clemson Insider. “We are coming to win the whole thing. That is just our mindset, and we are taking it game by game.”
Sandwiched between those two defeats to SEC opponents was a win for Clemson in the ACC championship game over North Carolina, a game in which Swinney benched junior quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and started freshman Cade Klubnik instead. It paid off, as Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown while running for another score as the Tigers won 39-10.
Uiagalelei has since transferred to Oregon State, meaning the Klubnik now has the keys to the offense.
“He’s everything you could want in a quarterback. He’s incredibly skilled. He’s a natural leader. He’s a gym rat. He’s got the skillset and accuracy,” Swinney said of Klubnik. “Physically, he has come a long way. He was about 179 pounds when he got here. He’s 203-204 now. He’s just in a really good place, physically.”
One adjustment for Klubnik will be getting used to new play-caller Garrett Riley. Swinney hired him away from TCU to be the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator.
However, much of Klubnik’s offensive weapons will be the same. Running back Will Shipley is back after totaling 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns from scrimmage last season. Antonio Williams, who hauled in 56 catches for 604 yards and four TDs, returns at receiver, too. The Tigers also bring back four of five starters on the offensive line.
On defense, Clemson has to replace four NFL draft picks but will still be anchored by stellar linebacker duo Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr., who combined for 24 tackles for losses last year.
Duke returns its fair share of standouts, too, including 98 percent of its offensive production. Junior quarterback Riley Leonard is back under center after totaling 33 touchdowns and more than 3,600 yards of total offense last season.
On defense, the Blue Devils bring back defensive lineman DeWayne Carter and safety Brandon Johnson, each of whom had 5.5 sacks last season. Fifth-year senior Ja’Mion Franklin — who had three sacks and five pass breakups last season — joins Carter as an anchor on the defensive front.
“Obviously, there’s another step we can take, and we pride ourselves in getting better every day,” Franklin said. “Whether it be the little things like our hands, our footwork, and ultimately, our effort … there’s definitely levels to go.”
Clemson is 37-16-1 all-time against Duke and has a five-game winning streak vs. the Blue Devils.
–Field Level Media