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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. 47: Clemson

Dabo can do it all. Well, he can coach and throw a baseball, at least. All with a smile.

Dabo Swinney’s first full season in charge of the Clemson program yielded an Atlantic division championship, the program’s first title of any kind since winning the conference outright in 1991. In that regard, 2009 was a success. It could have gone better, of course. The Tigers dropped two games to Georgia Tech, neither by more than five points and the latter in the A.C.C. title game. They suffered a simply inexcusable loss to Maryland – 2-10 on the year – though that game had little bearing on the Atlantic division’s final standings. Clemson also lost to rival South Carolina for the first time since 2006 and by the largest margin since 1994. Other than that, the year went swimmingly.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Location
Clemson, S.C.

Nickname
Tigers

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 35

2009 record
(9-5, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 23

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    North Texas
  • Sept. 11
    Presbyterian
  • Sept. 18
    at Auburn
  • Oct. 2
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 9
    at U.N.C.
  • Oct. 16
    Maryland
  • Oct. 23
    Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 30
    at Boston College
  • Nov. 6
    at N.C. St.
  • Nov. 13
    at Florida St.
  • Nov. 20
    at Wake Forest
  • Nov. 27
    South Carolina

Last year’s prediction

Perhaps a lack of expectations – unlike 2008 – is all the Tigers need to win nine games and battle for the conference title. I do believe that Clemson can win the Atlantic, as the team certainly has the talent to play with any team in the A.C.C. The potential is there for an Atlantic title – which would make Clemson a very nice story – but I can’t put the Tigers ahead of Florida State. Like N.C. State, I predict Clemson to finish 8-4, 5-3 in the A.C.C.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The positives far outweigh any negatives. Clemson was significantly better on offense, especially during a late six-game winning streak. The Tigers set a new school record with 436 points scored, though the extra game played is largely to thank for that. The defense held 10 opponents to 24 points or less, and even in defeat held T.C.U. to 24 points below its season average for scoring. When the season ended — despite losses to Georgia Tech, Maryland and South Carolina — I had the Tigers ranked among my top 25 teams in the country. Unfortunately, Swinney and Clemson enter 2010 needing to replace many key contributors on both sides of the ball, most notably at the offensive skill positions.

High point An ugly loss to Maryland on Oct. 3 – one that dropped Clemson to 2-3 overall – served as the impetus for a month of terrific football. It also woke up the offense, which keyed Clemson’s 6-0 mark from Oct. 17 – Nov. 21. The Tigers scored at least 34 points in each win, including a season-high (against F.B.S. competition) 43 at N.C. State.

Low point Two losses to Georgia Tech, one in September and one in the A.C.C. title game. Each featured a trick play from the Yellow Jackets out of a special teams formation; each of those plays stood large in the final result. The two losses also featured similar production from the quarterback position: Clemson was intercepted twice in each game. In-state bragging rights were lost in a 34-17 loss to rival South Carolina on Nov. 28.

Tidbit While no less painful, Clemson’s loss to South Carolina in November should have been expected. Six of the last eight Clemson coaches – since Frank Howard retired in 1969 – have lost to the Gamecocks in their first full season with the program. You can add Swinney to the list of Hootie Ingram (1970), Red Parker (1973), Danny Ford (1979), Ken Hatfield (1990) and Tommy West (1994), though Swinney did, after all, beat U.S.C. in his first try in 2008 after replacing Tommy Bowden. Speaking of Bowden, he and Charley Pell are the only two coaches since Howard stepped down to beat U.S.C. in their first full season.

Tidbit (Top 25 edition) Four times in the last decade Clemson has finished the season ranked in the Top 25 after opening the year unranked. That ties the Tigers with Boston College, Oregon State and Oregon for second-most in the country over that span. Leading the way – and you’d get the answer if you sat and thought about it for a bit – is Boise State, which has done so five times.

Former players in the N.F.L.

27 LB Kevin Alexander (Denver), OG Thomas Austin (Minnesota), CB Crezdon Butler (Pittsburgh), CB Chris Chancellor (Cleveland), S Chris Clemson (Miami), LB Kavell Conner (Indianapolis), RB James Davis (Cleveland), S Brian Dawkins (Denver), DE Nick Eason (Pittsburgh), WR Jacoby Ford (Oakland), C Dustin Fry (Denver), WR Tyler Grisham (Pittsburgh), S Mike Hamlin (Dallas), CB Tye Hill (Tennessee), LB Leroy Hill (Seattle), DE Phillip Merling (MIami), CB Justin Miller (Arizona), TE Michael Palmer (Atlanta), DE Trevor Pryce (Baltimore), OT Barry Richardson (Kansas City), DE Ricky Sapp (Philadelphia), DT Darell Scott (St. Louis), RB C.J. Spiller (Buffalo), WR Chansi Stuckey (Cleveland), FB Rendrick Taylor (Tamp Bay), LB Anthony Waters (New Orleans), QB Charlie Whitehurst (Seattle).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with South Carolina ties, with notable work
1. William Gibson. “Neuromancer.”
2. Pat Conroy. “The Great Santini.”
3. DuBose Heyward. “Porgy.”
4. Betsy Byars. “The Night Swimmers.”
5. Robert Jordan. “The Wheel of Time” series.

Coaching

Dabo Swinney (Alabama ’93), 13-8 entering his third season at Clemson. Swinney was called upon after the first six games of 2008, when he replaced Tommy Bowden, fired after nearly 10 seasons 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 last season. 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 the most 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. However, he has since ceded the play-calling duties to Billy Napier, formerly the tight ends coach. 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. Saban’s loss has been Clemson’s gain, at least thus far. The honeymoon period is over, however, and Swinney needs to indicate he can win with his own players, as he’ll have to do in 2010 and beyond.

Players to watch

Will he or won’t he? Baseball or football? I know we’d all take football, obviously, but it would be hard to find fault with whatever choice Kyle Parker makes regarding his athletic future: baseball is awaiting his decision — with bags and bags of money — as is Clemson; I assure you, the Tigers need him more than the Colorado Rockies. Until his choice is final, Clemson has no choice to move forward with the two returning quarterbacks in the mix to replace Parker in the starting lineup. The leader is redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd, who brings to the table only experience running Clemson’s scout team offense in 2009. What Boyd does have, however, is ability: a top recruit in 2009, Boyd would give Clemson the option of incorporating more spread looks into its pro-style offense. His leading competitor is fifth-year senior Michael Wade, who has twice been moved to defense in his four-year career before returning full-time to quarterback in 2010. If Parker does opt to return, Clemson will have one of the top quarterbacks in the A.C.C.; if he doesn’t, the spotlight will be on Boyd to produce.

The passing game took another hit with the departure of Jacoby Ford and Michael Palmer, Clemson’s top two pass-catchers from a season ago. The onus will fall on senior Xavier Dye, a nine-game starter a year ago. The situation at receiver could have been even more dire: Dye asked for, and was granted, a request for a transfer last September before opting to return to the program. Phew. What Dye brings to the table is good size — 6’4, 205 pounds — and an ability to sneak behind the defense (14 receptions for 236 yards as a junior), though that latter task was certainly made easier by Clemson’s talented offensive cast. While there are few other sure things at the position — players with proven track records — the Tigers return a few receivers with experience: senior Terrance Ashe, a former walk-on, and junior Marquan Jones, for instance. The tallest task will be replacing Palmer, a first-team all-A.C.C. tight end. Clemson will turn to sophomore Dwayne Allen, coming off a fine debut season, in his stead.

The offensive line will be a strength. Only one starter must be replaced, though it’s a big loss: left guard Thomas Austin was a four-year fixture up front. His former teammate on the weak side, senior Chris Hairston, is the most talented of the returning bunch. The two-year starter earned second-team all-conference accolades a season ago — Clemson was also 9-3 when Hairston started, 0-2 when he didn’t. Hairston will help bookend the line with junior right tackle Landon Walker, another two-year starter. Junior Antoine McClain joins Walker on the strong side at guard, with sophomore Dalton McClain, coming off a very good debut campaign, returns at center. While losing Austin hurts, the Tigers can insert into the open left guard spot a reserve with starting experience. Junior Mason Cloy opened last season as the starter at center before dropping into a secondary role behind Freeman; while he suffered a broken leg late last season, Cloy will be ready to go come September.

As on offense, the Clemson defense touts an experienced front. The four-man line is led by the wonderfully productive interior duo of junior Brandon Thompson and senior Jarvis Jenkins. Thompson, playing off the nose, posted 50 tackles; Jenkins had another 69 stops, with 11 coming for loss. In addition to the starting pair, Clemson has the best depth at the two inside spots of any team in the conference. Though he didn’t start a single game, junior Rennie Moore is vital to the health of the Clemson ground game. Likewise with senior Miguel Chavis (28 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Depth abounds. The interior of the line is an unquestioned strength.

It’s time for the light to turn on for junior end Da’Quan Bowers, though, to be fair, injuries have been issue for the former five-star recruit over his first two seasons. The talent is there — and more. On talent alone, Bowers has been able to put forth a solid statistical effort. When Bowers combines athletic prowess with a growing knowledge of the game — as departed starter Ricky Sapp did in his final season — watch out: he could have a Gaines Adams-like  – the late college great — impact on this defense. Bowers will be joined in the starting lineup by either junior Andre Branch or sophomore Malliciah Goodman, with Branch entering the summer with a slight edge.

Looking for a star? Try senior safety DeAndre McDaniel on for size: the defending first-team all-American brings into his final campaign a quest for some serious national hardware. No returning safety in the country brings a better resume of production into 2010. McDaniel is coming off a 102-tackle, 8-interception junior season; the eight picks ranked third in the country, with McDaniel the only player in the nation to reach both of those totals. Which should come as no shock: some strong safeties play the run as well, only a handful the pass as well, but none do both quite like McDaniel. Lott, Bednarik, Thorpe, you name it. If there’s a national trophy to be had, McDaniel’s in the running.

He was joined at safety last season by fellow senior Marcus Gilchrist, but the senior could make the move from free safety to cornerback in 2010. This isn’t a bad move: while Gilchrist was productive at safety (107 tackles, 1 sack), he brings starting experience at cornerback to the table. Such a move would also open up the free safety spot to sophomore Rashard Hall, whose standout freshman season included six interceptions, second on the team. Moving Gilchrist would also offset the loss of starting cornerbacks Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler. It appears senior Byron Maxwell (36 tackles, 2 interceptions) will start opposite Gilchrist.

So the defensive line and secondary look to be equally solid, if not stronger than a year ago. There do exist some question marks surrounding the linebacker corps, which lost multiple-year starters Kevin Alexander (20 career starts) and Kavell Connor (27 starts). The lone returning starter is junior Brandon Maye, an immediate starter since stepping in at middle linebacker as a redshirt freshman. He’s looking at a position change, however, as Clemson is pondering moving Maye from the middle to the weak side. As with Gilchrist’s move in the secondary, such a position change has a purpose: it would allow talented sophomore Corico Hawkins to move into the starting lineup. While sophomore Jonathan Willard remains on the weak side, there is an opportunity for playing time on the strong side. Senior Scotty Copper brings starting experience to the table, but the Tigers could also look towards redshirt freshman Quandon Christian or Justin Parker, the latter the gem of Clemson’s recent recruiting class.

Position battles to watch

There he goes, once again, for a score. C.J. Spiller will be tough to replace.

Running back C.J. Spiller was more than just a wonderful college football player: he was the leader of this team, perhaps the player most integral to the success of his team, not to mention the face of the program. So how do you replace a legend? Well, you don’t. Not with one back, at least; you’d need two, as Clemson has heading into 2010. One is sophomore Andre Ellington, who flashed some of Spiller’s game-breaking ability in rushing for 491 yards on 7.2 yards per carry; the latter total ranked second in school history, behind — take a guess — Spiller. Whether Ellington can maintain that average will not serving as a secondary option remains to be seen. The Tigers also return junior Jamie Harper, a former top recruit expected to step into Spiller’s shoes since his arrival in 2008. While Ellington may have been flashier, Harper was also a key contributor on the ground: 418 yards, including a team-best 79 yards in Clemson’s bowl win over Kentucky, and four touchdowns. Both Ellington and Harper bring much to the table, though neither will have the impact — individually — of Spiller. Together, however, the pair should combine to form a solid pair; this is especially true given the questionable situation Clemson faces in the passing game.

Game(s) to watch

The importance of bragging rights with South Carolina cannot be overstated. In A.C.C. play, Clemson will get its third shot in 13 months to unseat Georgia Tech. Watch the fake kick. In terms of repeating as the Atlantic champs, keep an eye on how Clemson fares over its final four conference games.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I like Dabo Swinney. His players like him more, a factor that cannot be overestimated. He’s had some good luck so far, however. He inherited a tough yet enviable position in 2008: the team was in shambles, but Swinney could only improve upon the always under-performing Tommy Bowden. Thanks to a talented roster, last year’s team was built to make a run for the A.C.C. championship. In 2010, we’ll see what Swinney is made of. If he can lead the Tigers back to, say, nine wins, he deserves consideration for conference coach of the year. 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. That’s not going to happen with an individual rusher, but instead with a by-committee approach. 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.

Dream season The Tigers repeat as Atlantic champs and upset Georgia Tech in the A.C.C. title game to reach the B.C.S. Oh, and Clemson beats South Carolina by three touchdowns.

Nightmare season Swinney’s touch does not extend to his third season, a year that sees Clemson finish 5-7. The season ends with a 14-point loss to South Carolina.

In case you were wondering

Where do Clemson fans congregate? Solid message board chatter can be found at Tiger Illustrated, CUTigers.com and Tiger Net. For a blog’s take, check out Shakin the Southland. Another fan site, Block C, does a little bit of both: partly a blog, partly a message board. Multi-tasking, just like C.J. Spiller.

Up Next

Who is No. 46? Our next program may have reached bowl play last fall, but it was the only team to fail to score a single point in its post-season affair.

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Comments

  1. Burnt Orange says:

    #46 – Arizona.

    Paul: You’re a machine. You and George Howley are always on the ball here.

  2. Jeff says:

    Except George Howley seems to think every answer is Temple.

  3. box125 says:

    Was actually only 14 points given up vs. TCU.

    Good article.

    Paul: Yeah, I meant to say 24 points fewer than T.C.U.’s season scoring average, which was somewhere around 38 points per game.

  4. [...] Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 47, is Clemson. You can find a larger Clemson preview here. [...]

  5. BFahey says:

    Where’s Nebraska and Jim Narby?

    Paul: I think we need to put out an APB for Narby. A preview doesn’t feel right until he chimes with a Nebraska call.

  6. DivePlay says:

    Although I used to get a kick out of Narby’s Cornhusker predictions, my guess is that he assumed Paul just decided they weren’t worth ranking. From his perspective, there is no way they could be considered to be in the top 50, right?

  7. clemsonbill says:

    So let me get this straight, TEMPLE is better than Clemson??????????????????????????????????????? What ARE you smoking??? Clemson will finish top 25 this year. Go figure out who Chad Deihl,Duane Allen, Byron Maxwell,and many other new names (to you) are and you might have some clue as to how good the Tigers will be this year. The defense starts NO new players this year, all have considerable experience. Obviously you didn’t know Kyle Parker was coming back so maybe you could revise your list to be somewhat realistic? CU < TEMPLE???

    Paul: Thanks for your input. And I’m sure your claim that Clemson is a Top 25 team is not due in any way to you being a fan of the university. Again, this list is based on each team’s resume. In my opinion, a 10-win Temple team has a better resume than a six- or seven-win Clemson team. I appreciate your comment. Easy on the question marks next time, perhaps.

  8. Paul says:

    Wow! Great piece on the Tigers…they will surprise this year! One name to keep in mind is Redshirt Freshman running back Roderick McDowell. The ground game will be pretty explosive this year up there. With Parker back at QB, the offense will be running pretty effectively. Expect TE Dwayne Allen to have 40 or more catches this season…he’s that good!

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