Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gator Bowl: Clemson vs. Nebraska

January 1, 2009 * 1:00 PM * CBS

Clemson and Nebraska enter the Gator Bowl in an unexpected match-up as most felt Clemson would be in a BCS bowl before the season started. Clemson finished 7-5 overall and 4-4 in league play while Nebraska comes in 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big 12. After rollercoaster regular seasons, both schools need strong finishes to boost their programs heading into next season. Clemson enters this game unranked in both polls but is 19th in the Sagarin Rankings, while Nebraska is unranked and ranked 29th in the Sagarin.

When the Cornhuskers Have the Ball

The Cornhusker offense has been solid, led by senior QB Joe Ganz (3,332 yards, 23-10 ratio) and HM All-Big 12 RB Roy Helu (804 yards, seven touchdowns). While the offense has been fairly well-balanced, they are still a run first team anchored by 2nd team All-Big 12 RG Matt Slauson (6-5, 320) and HM All-Big 12 C Jacob Hickman (6-4, 290). Perhaps the biggest playmaker is senior WR Nate Swift (909 yards, nine touchdowns) who led the team in receiving. Senior WR Todd Peterson (690 yards, three touchdowns) was the #2 receiver and gave Ganz another solid target. Don’t be surprised to see Ganz, Slauson, Swift, Peterson, and backup RB Marlon Lucky (550 yards, seven touchdowns) in NFL training camps next fall. The Tiger defense has been a strong point giving up just 16.6 points, and less than 295 total yards per game. With two safeties likely to get drafted and two junior corners who have inquired about their draft status, it is no wonder that they have given up just 167.2 ypg passing this season. 1st team All-ACC SS Michael Hamlin (91 tackles, 6 INT, 7 PBU) brings great leadership and ball skills to the secondary. He is joined by FS Chris Clemons (2 INT, 3 PBU) and a pair of shutdown junior cover corners in Chris Chancellor (32 tackles, 4 INT, 3 PBU) and Crezdon Butler (40 tackles, 3 INT, 3 PBU). The defensive front has been a disappointment due to injuries to DE Ricky Sapp (25 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) who is out for the bowl game, DT Rashaad Jackson (8 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks), and Jamie Cumbie. Their linebackers are young but could have a couple of potential stars in junior WLB Kavell Conner (91 tackles, 5.5 TFL) and freshman MLB Brandon Maye (66 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks). Conner led the team in tackles and Maye has been mentioned as one of the top freshmen in the nation.

When Clemson Has the Ball

Clemson’s rushing attack is led by thunder and lightning. Second team All-ACC running back C.J. Spiller finished with 612 yards rushing and seven touchdowns in 11 games and James Davis (725 yards, 11 touchdowns) enters the postseason with a solid, but somewhat disappointing season compared to pre-season projections. Quarterback Cullen Harper has been bothered by injuries all season and finished with just 2,395 yards, 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His top target, 2nd team All-ACC wide out Aaron Kelly (61 catches, 648 yards, three touchdowns), didn’t quite live up to his preseason billing, but still had a solid season for the Tigers. Speedy slot wideout Jacoby Ford (50 catches, 598 yards, three scores) provides Harper with a secondary threat as he is able to take it to the house at any time. The offensive line is anchored by 2nd team All-ACC center Thomas Austin who, like Ford and Spiller, has sent his name to the NFL Advisory Board to inquire about his draft prospects. For the Nebraska defense, the strength is on the line where the Huskers boast three All-Big 12 performers in NT Ndamukong Suh (68 tackles, 15 TFL, 5.5 sacks), DE Zach Potter (43 tackles, 14 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 6 hurries), and DT Ty Steinkuhler (6 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 hurries). One of the underrated performers is sophomore DE Pierre Allen (50 tackles, 9 TFL, 4 sacks), who played just 10 games. The linebackers are considered the weak link on paper and must step up in order to help keep Spiller and Davis in check. Honorable Mention All-Big 12 SS Larry Asante (64 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU) headlines a secondary that finished #2 in the Big 12 (235.7) in pass defense in a year where the Cornhuskers finished in the middle of the pack in almost every other category.

Final Analysis

Something has to give in this game as Nebraska enters averaging 36.2 ppg while Clemson leads the ACC in scoring defense (16.6). Nebraska also boasts a solid run defense (125.8) and while you would think Clemson would expose it on paper, the Tigers only put up 120.5 ypg this year. Since the firing of Tommy Bowden, Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers to a 4-2 record, including three straight wins and a romping of rival South Carolina. Nebraska won their last three games after a loss to Oklahoma on November 1st. With two hot teams, this is an intriguing Gator Bowl that you just shouldn’t miss.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-4, 5-3)
Pass: Joe Ganz – 3,332 yards, 23 TDs
Run: Roy Helu Jr. – 804 yards, 7 TDs
Catch: Nate Swift – 909 yards, 9 TDs

Clemson Tigers (7-5, 4-4)
Pass: Cullen Harper – 2,395 yards, 11 TDs
Run: James Davis – 725 yards, 11 TDs
Catch: Aaron Kelly – 648 yards, 3 TDs

Photo Credit: Collegiate Images