Monday, August 24, 2009

CFI Countdown: #23 Clemson Tigers

2008 Record: 7-6 (ACC: 4-4)
Bowl Game: Lost Gator Bowl to Nebraska 26-21
Location: Clemson, South Carolina
Stadium: Clemson Memorial Stadium (80,301)
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
Overall: 4-3 (2nd season)
@ Clemson: 4-3 (2nd season)
Link to Clemson Football Page

Even though they’ve lost some serious offensive firepower from last season’s team, the Clemson Tigers still possess talent galore. That talent has many in South Carolina thinking this could be the year they finally reclaim the ACC championship. Wait…have you heard that before? The reality is that after the disappointing season to top all disappointing seasons in 2008, expectations are actually somewhat tempered for the Tigers in 2009, which might turn out to be just what these Cats need.

When the Tigers Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: Billy Napier (2nd Season)
Scheme: Multiple
Starters Returning: Seven
Key Losses: QB Cullen Harper, RB James Davis, WR Aaron Kelly, WR Tyler Grisham

It is downright inconceivable that with James Davis and C. J. Spiller in the same backfield, the Clemson Tigers had one of the worst rushing seasons in school history. But that’s what happened. Spiller is capable of taking one to the house whenever he touches the football—both on the ground and through the air. He is shifty, strong and owns breakaway speed. However, even with Davis now playing on Sundays, Spiller will have to share carries as sophomore Jamie Harper appears ready for a breakout season of his own. Replacing the ACC’s all-time leading receiver in Aaron Kelly won’t be as easy. The speedy Jacoby Ford can stretch the field and make things happen after the catch, but there is not much after him in terms of proven commodities. Whoever ends up taking the majority of the snaps—freshman Kyle Parker or sophomore Willy Korn—the Tigers are expected to get improved play from the quarterback position after Cullen Harper’s disappointing senior campaign. While both are talented, Coach Swinney would be wise to settle on one. Making both the passing and rushing attacks better in 2009 will be an improved offensive line. Senior guard Thomas Austin leads the way with a talented trio of sophomores—center Mason Cloy, guard Antoine McClain and tackle Landon Walker—playing a big role as well.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) RB C.J. Spiller (SR), 2) OG/C Thomas Austin (SR), 3)
WR Jacoby Ford (SR)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Kevin Steele (1st Season)
Scheme: 4-3
Starters Returning: Eight
Key Losses: DT Dorrell Scott, S Michael Hamlin, S Chris Clemons

The Tigers possess potentially the best tandem of ends in the nation. Of course, when it comes to Clemson, there are qualifiers attached: Explosive senior Ricky Sapp must fully recover from tearing his ACL last season, and super sophomore Da’Quan Bowers needs to build on his Gator Bowl performance from his true freshman season. Both players have the type of raw athleticism to dominate and command double teams on an every-down basis, which should open things up for 300-pounders Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson in the middle. If they can get consistent pressure on the quarterback, it will also make a deep and talented secondary that much more effective. Seniors Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler form a great duo at the corner position, while junior strong safety DeAndre McDaniel should make a seamless transition from linebacker. They are a bit thin at linebacker, although sophomore Brandon Maye looks like a perennial All-ACC performer.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) DE Da’Quan Bowers (SO), 2) HYB Ricky Sapp (SR), 3) SS DeAndre McDaniel (JR)

The Schedule

None of their road games will be easy—Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina St. and South Carolina—as all five come against bowl teams from 2008 that should be as good or better this season. Out of conference they play host to BCS Buster TCU in September to go along with their season finale in Columbia. On the flip side, they host Coastal Division favorites Florida St. and avoid both Virginia Tech and North Carolina from the Atlantic Division.

Pivotal Point

It’s time to coach ’em up! Clemson has not won a conference title or reached double figures in wins since 1991. A lack of talent hasn’t been the reason, but if it’s not a matter of talent, then what is it? The people around Clemson have been screaming for years about the coaching, and maybe they’re right. This is year they will be led by Dabo Swinney, who is in his first full season and has a lot to prove despite somewhat righting a sinking ship in 2008. It was a risky move by the Tigers. Billy Napier is in his first full season as offensive coordinator and Kevin Steele is a new defensive coordinator. How quickly they plant their imprint is vital. If they can get this club to play smart, disciplined, and consistently, Clemson may actually exceed expectations.

CFI Final Analysis

It is hard to believe that Clemson—once the perennial power of the ACC—has not won a conference crown since 1991 and is still looking to make their first ACC Championshi game since the split to two divisions. They were within minutes of doing so in 2007 before they were burned by Matty Ice (Matt Ryan) and Boston College late in the season. Last year it was over before it started, as Alabama thrashed the Tigers in the opener. They won’t vanquish all the demons this season, but they’ll be better than expected…which is a step in the right direction.

College Football Insiders Top 25 Countdown:
#25 West Virginia Mounainteers
#24 Tennessee Volunteers

Contact Daniel Mogollon via email

Photo Credit: Clemson SID