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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 37: Clemson

Please, give us an offense. I know, I know. There are tons of teams that need an offense. But Clemson really, really needs an offense. The Tigers need an offense to team with a top-notch defense. The Tigers need an offense to save Dabo Swinney’s job, as the former wunderkind enters 2011 on the hottest of hot seats. The Tigers need an offense in a most desperate way, and will continue to crave a potent offensive attack as long as the goal of this game continues to be to score more points than the opposition. So it’s with great pleasure that Clemson can turn the keys to the offense over to Chad Morris, Tulsa’s one-year wonder, who inherits one of the most high-profile, high-risk, high-reward jobs in the country. If he succeeds, Morris can write his ticket; if he fails, he’ll be regarded as the South’s second coming of Dave Clawson. High-risk, high-reward.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Location
Clemson, S.C.

Nickname
Tigers

Returning starters
13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 47

2010 record
(6-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 64

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Troy
  • Sept. 10
    Wofford
  • Sept. 17
    Auburn
  • Sept. 24
    Florida St.
  • Oct. 1
    at Virginia Tech
  • Oct. 8
    Boston College
  • Oct. 15
    at Maryland
  • Oct. 22
    North Carolina
  • Oct. 29
    at Georgia Tech
  • Nov. 12
    Wake Forest
  • Nov. 19
    at N.C. St.
  • Nov. 26
    at S. Carolina

Last year’s prediction

What would have to occur in order for Clemson to duplicate last season’s win total? The new faces at the offensive skill positions would have to come close to matching their predecessor’s production, particularly at running back. Clemson would have to first identify a starting quarterback — that’s if Parker opts for baseball — then create a system best suited for the starter’s skill set. To be fair, the offensive line is in good shape. The rest of the offense is not, to put it mildly. If Parker returns, the Tigers could have the offense to repeat as Atlantic division champs; the defense should be stout, even with its five lost starters. Clemson might have too many question marks to make a conference title run a distinct possibility. The Tigers are still a good team, one capable of winning eight games in the regular season. If they do, it will likely be due to the play of a potentially terrific defense.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Teams are supposed to get better with time: that’s the goal, at least. When a team hits its high-water mark in a coach’s debut season, well, that’s not good. And it’s not good for job security, as Dabo Swinney can attest. Clemson’s third-year coach will enter 2011 on a seriously hot seat, thanks to the following development: 4-3 over the second half of 2008; 9-5 in 2009, complete with a division title; 6-7 in 2010. That’s not why Clemson pays Swinney to be its coach, even if Swinney is on the lower end of the A.C.C. coaching pay scale. The worst part about last season’s decline was that the defense was there, and has been for several years. The offense, unfortunately, was not. Clemson had no passing game to speak of, with quarterback Kyle Parker’s performance leaving much to be desired. The running game was average, though more potent than the pass. The line struggled, though it did a fine job protecting the quarterback. From top to bottom, the offense needs work. Two words: Chad Morris.

High point Three wins in four games in A.C.C. action after starting conference play 0-2. Each win was relatively impressive: by 24 points over Maryland, 14 points over Georgia Tech and by a single point, 14-13, over N.C. State. The victory over the Yellow Jackets gave Clemson a measure of recompense after losing twice to Tech a season ago.

Low point One couldn’t blame Clemson for thinking about an overtime loss to Auburn, a game the Tigers could threw away with sloppy special teams play. The regular season ended with another loss to rival South Carolina, this one by 22 points.

Tidbit Clemson is one of only seven programs in the F.B.S. to have at least five players taken in each of the last two N.F.L. drafts. The Tigers had five players taken in 2010, highlighted by C.J. Spiller landing at No. 9, and had six players selected this spring. Clemson didn’t have a first round pick in 2011, but had three players – each on the defensive side of the ball – go in this April’s second round. The six other programs to have at least five players taken in each of the last two drafts? U.S.C. (seven and nine, respectively), Alabama (seven and five), Iowa (six and six), L.S.U. (six and six) and Georgia (five and six).

Tidbit (ranked opponents edition) Clemson has defeated a ranked opponent in seven of the last eight seasons and in 21 of the last 25 years overall. Clemson did not top a ranked foe in 2008, the lone season since 2003 it has not done so. In 2003, the Tigers beat No. 8 Florida State; in 2004, No. 10 Miami (Fla.); No. 17 Texas A&M, No. 19 Florida State and No. 19 South Carolina in 2005; No. 9 Florida State and No. 13 Georgia Tech in 2006; No. 19 Florida State in 2007; No. 10 Miami in 2009; and No. 25 N.C. State last fall.

Tidbit (those were the days edition) Turn back the clock. Clemson won the national title in 1981, finishing a perfect 12-0 after going a pedestrian 6-5 in 1980. Did you know that only one opponent during that magical 1981 season held an advantage in time of possession? Do you know which team that was? No, it wasn’t Georgia, or North Carolina, or even big, bad Nebraska. It was Wofford, believe it or not, which lost to Clemson, 45-10, in the season opener yet somehow managed to hold the ball for more time than the Tigers. Reset your clock to 2011. Can you believe its been 30 years since Clemson won its lone national title?

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Joel, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Tulsa preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Clemson Tigers. Take it away, Joel.

Expectations are fairly low in Death Valley, as the fickle fan base that went gaga over Dabo Swinney’s promotion in 2008 is quickly turning against him. The up-tempo offensive scheme that Chad Morris brings will have to break in a new quarterback, and an inexperienced receiver corps will put pressure on the run. There, the Tigers have one of the most talented pair of backs in the nation; if Bellamy and Ellington develop well, expect comparisons to the “Thunder and Lightning” days of Davis and Spiller. Kevin Steele’s aggressive defensive scheme will suffer from losses on the line, but an injection of young linebacker talent should prevent a steep drop-off. Seven or eight wins seems likely, buying Dabo another year, and confirming fears that Clemson is mired in the same malaise as during the Tommy Bowden years.

Former players in the N.F.L.

24 OG Thomas Austin (New England), DE Da’Quan Bowers (Tampa Bay), CB Crezdon Butler (Pittsburgh), S Chris Clemson (Miami), LB Kavell Conner (Indianapolis), RB James Davis (Washington), S Brian Dawkins (Denver), WR Jacoby Ford (Oakland), CB Marcus Gilchrist (San Diego), WR Tyler Grisham (Pittsburgh), OT Chris Hairston (Buffalo), S Mike Hamlin (Jacksonville), RB Jamie Harper (Tennessee), DT Jarvis Jenkins (Washington), CB Byron Maxwell (Seattle), DE Phillip Merling (MIami), TE Michael Palmer (Atlanta), DE Trevor Pryce (New York Jets), DE Ricky Sapp (Philadelphia), DT Darell Scott (St. Louis), RB C.J. Spiller (Buffalo), FB Rendrick Taylor (Tamp Bay), LB Anthony Waters (New Orleans), QB Charlie Whitehurst (Seattle).

Arbitrary top five list

Pitchers in Detroit Tigers history
1. Mickey Lolich, 1963-75.
2. Jack Morris, 1977-90.
3. Hal Newhouser, 1939-53.
4. Hooks Dauss, 1912-26.
5. Justin Verlander, 2005-present.

Coaching

Dabo Swinney (Alabama ’93), 19-15 entering his fourth season at Clemson. Swinney was called upon after the first six games of 2008, when he replaced Tommy Bowden, fired after nearly a decade with the program. Though he inherited a difficult situation – Clemson, the preseason A.C.C. favorite, had floundered to a 3-3 start – Swinney imbued the team with a much-needed dose of energy and enthusiasm. After losing his debut, Swinney and the Tigers rolled off three consecutive wins to end the regular season, and salvaged some momentum by reaching the program’s first January bowl game since the 2003 season. That momentum carried over to 2009. Though Clemson had trouble with Georgia Tech and lost to in-state rival South Carolina, Swinney and his staff did a solid job leading the Tigers to nine wins, tied for a program-high since 1990. Swinney also achieved something Bowden could not: win an Atlantic division title. Swinney has been at Clemson since 2003, coaching the receivers from 2003-6 before adding the assistant head coach duties to his title prior to the 2007 season. Swinney also took on the offensive coordinator position when he was tabbed as the interim head coach, leading the Tigers to an average of 23.9 points per game over the final seven games of the year. His only assistant experience before Clemson came at his alma mater, Alabama, where he served for eight seasons (1993-2000) under two different head coaches (Gene Stallings, whom he played under, and Mike DuBose). With the Tide, Swinney was a graduate assistant (1993-95), wide receivers and tight ends coach (1996-97) and wide receivers coach (1998-2000). There is no doubt that if Swinney had been not named Clemson’s full-time coach at the end of the 2008 season, he would have returned to Alabama as one of Nick Saban’s lead assistants. Clemson blessed its good fortune at first, but last year’s slide to irrelevance places Swinney firmly on the hot seat heading into the 2011 season.

Players to watch

Clemson against F.B.S. competition with a healthy Andre Ellington: 23.4 points per game. Clemson against F.B.S. competition without Ellington: 18.0 points per game. It doesn’t seem like much, but that five-point drop made a world of difference for the Tigers in 2010, and it underlines just how important Ellington is to this offense. He becomes even more vital now that Jamie Harper is gone, foregoing his final season of eligibility for a shot at the next level. Ellington rushed for 684 yards through his eight healthy appearances, cracking the 100-yard mark four times and scoring 12 times, which was then good for 10th in the nation. Will his numbers dip in an offense that has the reputation for spreading the ball around? Don’t even think about it: Morris wants to run the ball, as he did at Tulsa, and look for Ellington to crack the 1,000-yard mark if he remains healthy. Sophomore Roderick McDowell (32 carries for 181 yards) is the presumed backup, but look for freshman Mike Bellamy to take control of that spot once he learns the offense.

The good: Tajh Boyd doesn’t lack for ability. More good: Morris knows a thing or two about solid quarterback play. More good: Kyle Parker struggled so mightily last fall that Boyd can only be an improvement. Even more good: Boyd could roll out of bed and be productive in this offense. The bad: he’s inexperienced. More bad: he doesn’t have the weapons – not yet, at least – at receiver, though Clemson has an all-conference tight end in junior Dwayne Allen (33 catches for 373 yards, 1 touchdown). But the good outweighs the bad, and there’s reason to be excited about what the sophomore can achieve as the starter.

There is a lack of experience, as noted. Boyd hit on 33 of his 63 attempts as Parker’s backup in 2010, throwing for 329 yards and 4 scores, two of which came in the bowl loss to South Florida. Yet he did play in a spread-based offense in high school; apples and oranges, I know, but at least Boyd has a feel for what to expect from Morris’s system. The job is all his, as the projected backups have yet to attempt a pass on the college level. Can Boyd deliver? The lack of proven receivers is a concern, but few quarterbacks will spend 2011 in as friendly a system.

Adding Morris was the highlight of Clemson’s winter, but don’t sleep on the impact new line coach Robbie Caldwell, formerly of Vanderbilt, can have on this offense. Like Morris, Caldwell was a coup for this program, which desperately needs better play up front. He’ll have four returning starters to work with: left guard David Smith, center Dalton Freeman, right guard Antoine McClain and right tackle Landon Walker. Freeman, McClain and Walker are multiple-year starters, while Smith earned a starting nod for the first time in 2010. So all good, right? Well, there’s a gaping hole at left tackle, one the Tigers hope to fill with former walk-on Phillip Price, who began his career at tight end. The left side of the line as a whole is a question mark, but you have to like Caldwell’s ability to make things work. With the changes occurring elsewhere on offense it’s easy for the changes facing this offensive line to get lost in the shuffle. But the line must learn a whole new blocking scheme, which won’t be easy.

About the losses on defense: they’re pretty big. They’re big up front, where Clemson must replace an all-everything talent in end Da’Quan Bowers, not to mention an underrated interior presence in Jarvis Jenkins. They’re big at linebacker, where another two starters must be replaced. And they’re big in the secondary, where the Tigers encounter life with all-A.C.C. pick DeAndre McDaniel, not to mention another solid pair of starters. It won’t be easy, but you like defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s ability to put together a tough, productive unit. In a strange way, you also like the fact that unlike the last two or three years, the Clemson defense heads into a year with something to prove. Being discounted is often the ultimate motivator.

Clemson won’t replace the 25 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks Bowers brought to the table; one player won’t do that, at least. But the Tigers might be able to cobble together another strong pass rush if a player like junior end Malliciah Goodman plays up to his potential. We haven’t seen it yet, though that has much to do with the fact that it was hard for Goodman to get on the field and generate some momentum when playing behind several N.F.L.-caliber linemen. Now he’s a starter, and a key figure on this defense. Senior Andre Branch (49 tackles, 4 sacks) joins him at end. Branch has been steady but not spectacular, so the Tigers need him to do more as a senior. True freshman Corey Crawford impressed the staff with his solid work during the spring.

Finding a replacement for Jenkins will be easier to do, though you wonder if 270-pound senior tackle Rennie Moore has the size to stand up against the run. What Moore (25 tackles, 6 for loss) does have is a quick first step, which will provide a big boost for a defensive front looking to maintain pressure in the backfield. Looking for the next Clemson defensive lineman to earn all-A.C.C. honors? It’s senior nose guard Brandon Thompson (53 tackles, 7.5 for loss), who moves into the limelight after getting lost in the shuffle as a junior.

The lone returning starter on the second level is junior middle linebacker Corico Hawkins (61 tackles, 9 for loss). But there’s some returning experience, like sophomore Quandron Christian (24 tackles) and junior Jonathan Willard. This should be your starting outside pair, with Christian on the strong side and Willard on the weak side. Could another sophomore, Justin Parker, claim the major role most expected he’d hold early in his career? Maybe, but as long as Parker remains on the strong side it will be tough for him to unseat Christian. He’s one of three young linebackers currently holding reserve roles, joining redshirt freshman Vic Beasley and sophomore Spencer Shuey. That might change when two ballyhooed true freshmen, Tony Steward and Stephone Antyhony, step on campus.

There’s starting experience but only one full-time starter back in the secondary: junior Rashard Hall (63 tackles, 2 interceptions) will handle the free safety duties. You begin to appreciate just how vital Hall is to the Clemson pass defense when you consider just how much the Tigers must replace with those three lost starters. He’ll be joined at strong safety by Jonathan Meeks (25 tackles, 1 interception), an off-and-on starter last fall. Not surprisingly, junior Xavier Brewer and senior Coty Sensabaugh are pegged as the starting cornerbacks. Brewer’s job is set in stone; Sensabaugh might have a bit of a harder time fighting off the number of freshmen and sophomores rising up the pipeline. That’s a list that includes Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters. Sensabaugh will start the season opener, but whether he holds onto that role depends on his play and if the youngsters show an ability to play on this high level.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver No position has impressed Morris less. That’s not a good thing for an offense that will, as illustrated at Tulsa, spread the field with four or more receivers at every opportunity. And Morris has been very forthright in his desire for more from his receivers, saying, in so many words, that this group needs work – a lot of work. Even if the offense had remained the same Clemson would have needed more from its receivers, who did nothing well in 2010: catching the ball was a problem, a big problem, as were other simple things like running routes, reading defenses and blocking. Morris won’t have that; he’ll play fifth-year walk-on seniors over four-stars if the talented would-be stars don’t do things right. So it’s really no surprise to see that there’s really only one returning receiver, sophomore DeAndre Hopkins, guaranteed of retaining a key role. Simply put, Hopkins (51 receptions for 626 yards and 4 scores) is the only Clemson receiver to show an ability to consistently makes plays on the college level; that he’s only a sophomore tells the whole story about the underachieving underclassmen at the position. If the season started today, you’d think that returning contributors like sophomore Bryce McNeal (19 for 187), junior Jaron Brown (32 for 424) and senior Marquan Jones (21 for 184) would join Hopkins in filling out the top portion of the depth chart. Based on Morris’s comments, it’s a good thing the season doesn’t start today. The opportunity is there for the much-heralded incoming class of freshmen to come in and grab a ton of playing time; this is partly because there’s little returning at the position, but the coordinator move has evened the depth chart to all comers. So these guys are going to play, believe me: Sammy Watkins is going to play early and often, as will Charone Peaks and Martavis Bryant. Speed, my friends, is what Morris covets. By all accounts, he’ll get that from these freshmen. Whether they’re ready for A.C.C.-level football is a major storyline surrounding this offense.

Game(s) to watch

Clemson kicks off with a nice four-game swing at home. That includes two wins, Troy and Wofford, one toss-up, Auburn, and a very tough date with Florida State. I know that everyone is giving the Atlantic division to the Seminoles, but is it that hard to imagine the Tigers getting the win at home? I know it’s not probable, but is it that hard to believe? Key games at Boston College, Maryland and N.C. State follow, with the latter pair on the road. Then there’s the game against South Carolina, winners of two straight in the long-running series. That’s a pretty hostile rivalry, to put it mildly.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Yeah, I’m pretty high on Chad Morris. I hesitate to call him a savior for Swinney and the Tigers, but I can say that Clemson could not have done any better in its offensive coordinator hire. Well, they could have nabbed Gus Malzahn, but in Morris the Tigers may have landed the next-best thing. I think he can do wonders for this offense – once he gets some pieces in place. The freshmen receivers might be just what the doctor ordered, but you don’t want to place such pressure on the rookie’s plates. And this offense really needs to find answers at receiver, as while Boyd still needs to prove himself that position is the largest question mark on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, there’s no ignoring the holes left by the departure of several all-A.C.C. starters. But I’m confident in Steele’s ability to cobble together a competent attack; like Morris – though not to that degree – Steele will rely on youngsters, true and redshirt freshmen and sophomores, to provide depth or, in some cases, hold starting roles. As of now, there are some issues to address. But I think Clemson will take a nice step forward off last season, potentially winning eight games in the regular season if the offense takes a solid step forward, as expected. Morris is too good a coach not to find Clemson at least rising into the middle of the pack in the A.C.C. on offense, and even if the defense takes a slight step back that should find the Tigers in second place in the Atlantic division. Clemson’s not going to take down Florida State, home game or no, so a second-place finish would be a fine achievement for a team coming off a losing season.

Dream season The offense hits the ground running in September and never looks back, leading Clemson to A.C.C. wins over Florida State, Boston College, Maryland and N.C. State. That would spell a 10-win season and another Atlantic division title.

Nightmare season Morris just doesn’t have the pieces to work with. The offense continues to stumble, the defense can’t replace the lost production and Swinney is out after three full seasons in charge.

In case you were wondering

Where do Clemson fans congregate? Solid message board chatter can be found at Tiger IllustratedCUTigers.com and Tiger Net. For a blog’s take, check out Shakin the Southland. Another former fan site, Block C, surprisingly closed its doors earlier in the summer. I’m still not sure why, so if anyone can shed some light on the situation please do so below. Here are three new additions to take its place: The Orange Kool Aid, Eye on the Tigers and Seldom Used Reserve.

Word Count

Through 84 teams 254,328.

Up Next

Who is No. 36? The last coach at tomorrow’s university was the fifth coach, not the fourth, in program history to win at least eight games in three consecutive seasons.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Michael says:

    It’s Pitt;

    Pop Warner
    Jock Sutherland
    Jackie Sherrill
    Dave Wannstedt

  2. Michael says:

    wait. Also, Walt Harris.

  3. John says:

    North Carolina?

  4. Joel says:

    The numbers work for Auburn, Ohio State or Texas, but with the specificity of three years in a row and 8 wins it’s gotta be West Virginia, where Art Lewis won 8 games from 1953-55, Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez won bunches, and Bill Stewart won 9 three years in a row.

  5. John says:

    Wannstache won seven games last season, I believe.

  6. Michael says:

    oh you’re right, they went 8-5 that season but at least one of those wins was under Phil Bennett…

    So it’s Warner, Dr. Sutherland, Sherrill, and Harris.

  7. taybax says:

    West Virginia is #35:

    Art Lewis
    Don Nehlen
    Rich Rodriguez
    Bill Stewart

  8. Eksynyt says:

    Surprised UNC isn’t next lol. And Paul, your list of teams with at least 5 NFL draftees is missing a team. You said 7 including Clemson but I only count 6 up there.

  9. CStiger says:

    Block C is gone because Willy Mac doesn’t have a ton of time to post anymore and Chili is living in China right now.

  10. GTWrek says:

    If I was Clemson I would hang on to Dabo for a few years, I don’t think there’s been a worse time in the history of modern football to hire a coach. It seems that almost every big name school has gone out and gotten a new coach over the last 2 years. The well is dry. Towards the end there was just nobody left to hire, just look at Michigan.

    And with all that, you now have Ohio State and UNC already queued up to grab whatever may surface after this season. Really, really bad time to have to fire a coach. Don’t do it Clemson, or you will have no choice but to gamble on another unproven assistant. Or gamble on a proven troublemaker like Rich Rod or Leach.

    Speaking of UNC, I think Davis leaving should affect whatever their ranking is going to be, but I guess it’s too late for that. You don’t lose a coach of that caliber and not suffer for it.

  11. Hokieshibe says:

    @ GTWrek

    I’m really not sure how great a gameday coach Davis was. When he was at both Miami and UNC, he lost to lots of teams with vastly inferior talent (he never beat NCSt, and they were terrible for a few years!). I think UNC will feel the loss of Davis in recruiting.

  12. mvpittfan says:

    UNC is next.

    Carl Snavely 1946-48
    Bill Dooley 1970-72
    Dick Crum 1979-83
    Mack Brown 1992-94
    Butch Davis 2008-10

  13. Woodysc says:

    I really like Dabo and hope that my Tigers keep him even if they struggle this year.*

    *disclaimer: my opinion might change if we lose for the third time in a row to the gamecocks. I’m nearly 40 years old and we are on the longest losing streak (2 games) to them in my lifetime.

  14. SixWinSeason says:

    If it is UNC, then they don’t have a head coach right now, so the clue is wrong.

  15. SixWinSeason says:

    Well, it does say LAST coach, so I guess it is ok….

  16. philip says:

    well, whenever west virginia comes up, might i suggest a photo of sigourney weaver as dana barrett in “ghostbusters”?

  17. Dontel says:

    I hate to break it to you Woodysc, but it will be 3 years in a row come November 26th. Paul hit it on the head that this is a very, VERY, hostile rivalry. I’m not originally from SC, but I graduated from USC and I learned very early during my time in Columbia that there is NO love lost between these schools. The gap in the talent level between Carolina and Clemson has closed tremendously over the last 3 years and its starting to show on the field. Clemson has always had a solid defense, but the offense has been, well, offensive. Maybe Chad Morris can bring back the firepower on that side of the ball when you guys had Rich Rod as OC. Time will tell. Looking forward to the 3 peat at Billy Brice!!!

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