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Thursday, July 29, 2010

2010 opponent preview: Clemson

We're up to Week 3 of the season in our opponent previews. If you missed the first two, you can click on the links at the top right of the page.

Now let's talk about Clemson ...

(After you follow the blog on Twitter, of course.)

Clemson Tigers
  • Head coach: Dabo Swinney (3rd season at Clemson, 13-8; 3rd season overall as head coach; assistant at Alabama and Clemson)
  • 2009 record: 9-5 (6-2 ACC Atlantic, 1st), beat Kentucky 21-13 in Music City Bowl
  • Returning starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
  • Total offense: 362.3 ypg (8th ACC, 74th nationally)
  • Total defense: 314.3 ypg (3rd ACC, 20th nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 33-11-2
  • Last meeting: Auburn won 23-20 in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta
  • Consensus prediction: Tied for second in ACC Atlantic
Five-week schedule glimpse
  • Sept. 4: North Texas
  • Sept. 11: Presbyterian
  • Sept. 18: at Auburn
  • Sept. 25: Off
  • Oct. 2: Miami (Fla.)
In his first full season as coach, Swinney did what Tommy Bowden never could at Clemson he got the Tigers over the hump and won the ACC's Atlantic Division title. Swinney's crew did that, thanks to the all-around talents of running back/return man extraordinaire C.J. Spiller and an underrated defense. The Tigers lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC title game 39-34 but took a major step forward as a program nonetheless. They hadn't won a title of any kind since 1991. Now that Spiller is gone, they'll have a tough task in maintaining that level of play, although Clemson got a boost when two-sport star Kyle Parker said he'll return to play football this year instead of pursuing a professional baseball career.

To find out more about Clemson, I turned to Greg Wallace, who does great work as the Tigers' beat writer for the Anderson Independent Mail. You can find his blog by clicking here and you can follow him on Twitter here. Here's what he had to say:

AB: Now that Parker announced he won't be giving up football for a professional baseball career (or at least a baseball-exclusive career), how much of a lift will that be for a Clemson offense that doesn't have many options behind him? Also, is his decision set in stone? Can the Rockies still pony up enough cash to lure him away before the Aug. 16 deadline?
GW: It is a gigantic boost for Clemson’s offense. Behind Parker, only two scholarship quarterbacks remained on the roster: redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd and fifth-year senior Michael Wade. Boyd is an extremely talented, athletic playmaker, but looked raw while receiving an extended look in spring practice and struggled with decision-making. Wade has seen little playing time and actually spent much of the spring cross-training as a safety. So to get back a freshman All-American who threw for 2,526 yards and 20 touchdowns (both Clemson freshman records) is gigantic for an offense which is already replacing its top tailback, wideout and tight end in Spiller, Jacoby Ford and Michael Palmer, respectively.

Parker told us reporters that he’ll be at Clemson this fall, and I believe him. He has moved on to a football frame of mind at least for this year and he’s not the kind of person to go back on a commitment. He expects to sign with the Rockies, but it’ll likely be for a smaller bonus than if he went baseball-only, or at least have his bonus spread out over four or five years in case of injury (incidentally, he is taking out disability insurance in case such an injury happens).
AB: What is the running back situation like now that Spiller is gone? Are Andre Ellington, Jamie Harper and an offensive line that returns four starters capable of coming close to replacing the production Spiller had last season? And even if they do, can they replicate Spiller's leadership?
GW: Losing Spiller one of the nation’s most dangerous backs is a big blow, but the coaching staff is confident that junior Harper and Ellington, a sophomore, can pick up the slack. Harper is a bruising back who still has plenty of speed, and Ellington is a shiftier, quicker back who can catch passes and cause mayhem out of the backfield, although perhaps not on Spiller’s level. Behind them, redshirt freshman Roderick McDowell, another shifty, quick type, will serve as the No.3 back. The offensive line should be solid, although it has little depth; senior left tackle Chris Hairston and center Dalton Freeman are All-ACC candidates. Leadership will be an issue in the backfield. Spiller was this team’s unquestioned leader in ’09, and you just can’t replace that right away, no matter how talented the backs behind him are.
AB: Spiller was also a special teams standout. Do the Tigers have anybody waiting in the wings who can pick up the slack in the return game? And, independent of that, do they have anyone who can stop Georgia Tech from successfully pulling off a trick play on special teams?
GW: Spiller'’s special-teams success was an integral part of Clemson’s offensive success last year; he was so dangerous returning kicks that teams would kick away from him or just kick out of bounds, giving the Tigers consistent starts at the 30 to 40 yard line. That won’t happen this year. Cornerback Marcus Gilchrist and Ellington are the two most talked-about candidates to return kicks, but I’d be stunned if either had the impact that Spiller provided every week. As for the trick plays, Andre Powell is an outstanding special teams coordinator. And I bet the Yellow Jackets weighed heavily on his mind this summer and he’ll be extra-wary when Tech comes to Death Valley Oct. 23.
AB: With the offensive firepower the Tigers have, the defense often gets overlooked, but this group was 20th nationally in yards allowed last season. With a strong defensive front and All-American safety DeAndre McDaniel in the secondary, how good can Kevin Steele's group be this year?
GW: The Tigers’ defense was salty last year, save its two meetings with Georgia Tech and an inexplicable gouging in a 34-17 rivalry loss at South Carolina. Save defensive end and Philadelphia Eagles draft pick Ricky Sapp, the entire front returns, and coaches are very excited about Sapp’s replacement, Andre Branch. The biggest issues are at linebacker; USC and Georgia Tech blasted through the middle late last year. 103-tackle junior Brandon Maye was moved from the middle into a position battle at Will ‘backer with Jonathan Willard, with sophomore Corico Hawkins inheriting the middle. Redshirt freshman Quandon Christian impressed at Sam 'backer in spring and is the clear starter. Freshman Justin Parker must also contribute early, but where is unclear.

Four-year starting cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor are gone, but the coaches seem pleased with senior Byron Maxwell and Gilchrist. McDaniel and sophomore Rashard Hall are both ball-hawking, hard-hitting safeties. The questions will be in the middle and they won’t likely begin being answered until Sept. 18 at Auburn.
AB: Swinney guided Clemson to the Atlantic Division title in his first full year with the program, the school's first title of any kind since 1991, albeit with players that Tommy Bowden recruited. Now that the honeymoon period is over — and he doesn't have the all-everything services of Spiller — is Swinney capable of sustaining long-term success at Clemson?
GW: I think he is capable of being a big success at Clemson, yes. Don’t forget that he is a masterful recruiter himself. He recruited Spiller, Parker and Harper out of the Jacksonville area, and put together a top-20 class last year in his first full recruiting cycle as head coach. The Tigers currently have 16 commitments, including six four-star players according to Rivals.com, in late July. That includes Mike Bellamy, considered the top tailback prospect in talent-rich Florida.

Swinney won’t have as long as Clemson gave Bowden to make an ultimate breakthrough (an ACC title), but his intense yet personable attitude has definitely grabbed the attention of his team and assistant coaches. It was a big statement that both Steele and Charlie Harbison turned down offers/interest to become SEC defensive coordinators at Tennessee and Florida to stay with Swinney, albeit for more cash. Last year’s ACC Atlantic Division title will buy some cache while Clemson attempts the next step.
There you have it. Sounds like this should be a pretty good game. I can imagine Auburn being favored but with Parker under center, I don't think it will be by too much. Also, if Auburn is ever looking for a permanent non-conference rivalry game, this seems like it would be a good fit. It's not too far away. The teams seem pretty even competitively of late. They seem to share the same Southern temperament for football. And each game seems like it's a battle for the right to use the nickname "Tigers." Sounds perfect.

Up next: An SEC team Auburn hasn't seen for a while: Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks.


SteveFC said...

Clempson would be a perfect out of conference opponent, but the problem is they play South Carolina out of conference every season. It would be tough for them to have two permanent SEC opponents each season.

Andy Bitter said...

I completely forgot about that. Great point. I guess that's the same problem with Florida State and Georgia Tech, too.

Tar Heel Tiger said...

it's obviously not a problem on an occasional basis since they are playing us in '10 and '11, and we played GT a few years back. I wouldn't mind if AU could create an 8 year cycle using CU, GT, FSU, and one non-regional BCS school (the latter wouldn't be the same school each cycle).

MikeP said...

I don't think Swinney will have a problem maintaining talent levels at Clemson.
It seems that every highly sought player in Georgia, plus several in Florida have Clemson at or near the top of their list.
He's already got commitments from some that Auburn was after. I really wish he'd look to the North instead of messing around down here, we already had enough recruiting competition without Clemson jumping into the picture.