Sunday, July 28, 2013

season preview: Clemson Tigers


8/31: Georgia
9/7: South Carolina State
9/14: BYE
9/19: @ NC State (Thu.)
9/28: Wake Forest
10/5: @ Syracuse
10/12: Boston College
10/19: Florida State
10/26: @ Maryland
11/2: Virginia
11/9: BYE
11/14: Georgia Tech (Thu.)
11/23: The Citadel
11/30: @ South Carolina

Skip: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

2012 results:

Auburn: W, 26-19
Ball State: W, 52-27
Furman: W, 41-7
Florida State: L, 49-37
Boston College: W, 45-31
Georgia Tech: W, 47-31
Virginia Tech: W, 38-17
Wake Forest: W, 42-13
Duke: W, 56-20
Maryland: W, 45-10
NC State: W, 62-48
South Carolina: L, 27-17
LSU: W, 25-24 (Peach Bowl)

Record: 11-2 (7-1); 2nd of 6, Atlantic Division

Projected starters:

QB: Tajh Boyd (5Sr.)
WR: Sammy Watkins (Jr.)
WR: Charone Peake (Jr.)
WR: Adam Humphries (Jr.)
RB: Roderick McDowell (5Sr.)
TE: Stanton Seckinger (So.)
LT: Brandon Thomas (5Sr.)
LG: David Beasley (rJr.)
C: Ryan Norton (rSo.)
RG: Tyler Shatley (5Sr.)
RT: Gifford Timothy (rJr.)

DE: Corey Crawford (Jr.)
DT: Grady Jarrett (Jr.)
DT: Josh Watson (rJr.)
DE: Vic Beasley (rJr.)
LB: Spencer Shuey (5Sr.)
LB: Stephone Anthony (Jr.)
LB: Quandon Christian (5Sr.)
CB: Darius Robinson (Sr.)
CB: Garry Peters (rJr.)
S: Travis Blanks (So.)
S: Robert Smith (Jr.)

K: Chandler Catanzaro (5Sr.)
P: Bradley Pinion (So.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Dabo Swinney, 4th season

Media prediction: 1st of 7, Atlantic Division; ACC champion


2012 1st team: QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington, WR DeAndre Hopkins, OT Brandon Thomas, C Dalton Freeman, TE Brandon Ford
2012 2nd team: K Chandler Catanzaro, S Rashard Hall
2012 HM: DE Malliciah Goodman, WR Sammy Watkins
2013 preseason: WR Sammy Watkins, QB Tajh Boyd, K Chandler Catanzaro

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Clemson is a popular pick for the ACC championship, and it's easy to see why.  Media types love to see familiar names at the skill positions on offense when they're voting, and can be easily seduced by flashy talent, but Clemson has the muscle to back it up as well.  With a schedule that includes two of the SEC's stronger teams, the Tigers are even considered an outside contender for a national title; a zero- or one-loss run through that schedule could set them up well for a title-game run.  That said, Clemson has a lot more preseason ACC championships under their belt than actual ones, and must first focus on getting through the conference schedule relatively unscathed.

-- Offense

The obvious starting point is Tajh Boyd, the media's pick for preseason player of the year.  Boyd is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who threw 36 touchdowns last season, racked up almost 4,000 yards passing on close to a two-thirds completion rate, and ran for over 500 yards as well.  He's perhaps at his multidimensional best in the red zone; 10 of Clemson's 26 rushing touchdowns belonged to Boyd, whose longest run of the year was only 27 yards.  In large part because of Boyd's versatility, Clemson was one of the nation's most dangerous red zone teams last year, scoring touchdowns on 73% of their trips and leading the country with a 95% total scoring rate.

Sammy Watkins starts the season as his primary receiving weapon; Watkins was a national sensation as a freshman in 2011 before being overshadowed somewhat in 2012 by both DeAndre Hopkins and his own bad behavior.  Hopkins is gone, so Watkins will be expected to return to the dynamic form of his freshman season if the Tigers are to live up to expectations.  Behind Watkins, Boyd will first look to Charone Peake and Adam Humphries, two players whose role should increase this season.  Peake is a former top-100 recruit who's getting his first real crack at a starring role, while Humphries is a dependable possession receiver.

Clemson must also replace 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington, but Roderick McDowell should be up to the task; McDowell had 83 carries last season in relief of Ellington, and with 450 yards, actually averaged more per carry than did Ellington.  He will run behind an experienced offensive line that replaces only its center from last season's starters.  David Beasley and Tyler Shatley established themselves last season as the starting guards, as did Gifford Timothy at right tackle.  These guys put to rest a lot of the questions that surrounded last year's Tiger O-line.  The star of the unit, though, is LT Brandon Thomas, considered by most to be among the elite tackles in the conference.  Thomas finished third in media voting for the preseason all-conference team.  Only Ryan Norton is new among the starters, penciled in at center.  Replacing all-conference center Dalton Freeman will be a tall task, but Norton was essentially the Tigers' sixth O-lineman last season as a redshirt freshman, playing more snaps than any other reserve, and should be reasonably up to the task.

Even with a great deal of replacement to do in the pass-catching realm - tight end is still not perfectly settled and only the somewhat risky Watkins returns as a WR starter - Clemson is lined up for a great season on offense.  This should be a big year for Boyd, and the continuity on the offensive line will greatly ease the transition to a new featured running back.  This will be a big-scoring unit once again.

-- Defense

Stability is the word for Clemson this year.  New DC Brent Venables brought instant improvement to a team that got embarrassed in the Orange Bowl following the 2011 season, and now the Tigers also have the continuity you look for in their personnel, in the front seven especially.  The only "new" starter is DE Vic Beasley, but Beasley may also be the one carrying the highest expectations.  He's a light and quick defensive end who had eight sacks in a reserve role in 2012, leading the team in that category.

Beasley will be Clemson's primary pass-rush threat; they will miss the contributions of Malliciah Goodman, as the other bookend, Corey Crawford, is more of a run-stuffer.  He's a good one, though, and along with tackles Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson, as well as third tackle and rotation member DeShawn Williams, Clemson should be very tough against the run.  Jarrett in particular can be very disruptive, with 8.5 TFL in 2012.

It's a stretch to say there are three returning starters at linebacker, as Jonathan Willard started every game there, but the three projected starters all played all 13 games last year and started 7.  Spencer Shuey may prove to be even better than Willard, though, and Stephone Anthony, a former elite-level recruit who was fourth on the team in tackles in 2012 and only 11th in snaps, could be poised for a breakout season.  The play of Quandon Christian was greatly improved from 2011 to 2012, and Clemson also has some quality options coming off the bench in Tony Steward and Oklahoma transfer Kellen Jones.  This unit is not hurting for depth at all and not only will be tough to run on, but has the ability to chip in here and there on the pass rush.

So if there's a question mark at all, it's in the secondary.  Safety Travis Blanks should be the anchor of the unit after making a major impression as a true freshman in 2012, starting eight games and picking off one pass to go along with seven PBUs.  Robert Smith has the lead in the competition for the other safety spot, although he was only lightly used in 2012.  At corner, the battle is even more heated; Darius Robinson started six of the first seven games in 2012 before succumbing to injury, and should have an advantage along with Garry Peters for the two starting roles.  Bashaud Breeland has starting experience at corner as well.  All are serviceable, but none are likely to be stars.

Pass defense, therefore, could be a relative weak point for the Clemson defense, with a still-unsettled secondary and a thin pass rush.  Relative.  Their run defense, however, looks to be in great shape, with a very deep and experienced front seven.

-- Special teams

Chandler Catanzaro is perhaps the conference's top kicker.  Bradley Pinion punted nine times last year for a 39.4 yard average, so Clemson's punting will at the least not be a negative and could be decent.

-- Outlook

It's Orange Bowl or bust for this team this year, and everyone knows it.  The Tigers have the quarterback to get it done and perhaps an underrated defense.  There's a huge gap between the top two in the Atlantic and the rest of it, so the mid-October FSU game (which, if the ACC had any scheduling skills at all, would be in November) is almost certain to decide the division.  National title goals will be on the back burner unless this team is undefeated going into its showdown with South Carolina.  From an ACC standpoint, though, the goal is to put a quality team into the Orange Bowl, so Clemson is a possible flag-carrier for the conference.

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