Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Clemson Preview

2008 Schedule
Aug. 30Alabama (in Atlanta, GA)
Sept. 13N.C. STATE
Sept. 27
Oct. 9@Wake Forest
Nov. 1
@Boston College
Nov. 8@Florida State
Nov. 15DUKE
Nov. 22@Virginia

2007 Results: 9-4 overall, 5-3 ACC (T-2nd Atlantic Division); lost to Auburn 23-20 (OT) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl

Offense: Despite fielding many a talented offense over the last several years, this is the first time the Tigers return so much proven experience at the skill positions at the same time, as quarterback Cullen Harper, RBs James Davis and CJ Spiller, and wideouts Aaron Kelly and Jacoby Ford can each make a case at being the best player(s) at their respective position in the league. Think about that for a second; now consider that not even once during Florida State's domination of the ACC in the 1990s could they have said that. Now you see why folks are so high on the Tigers this year despite their complete failure to make any real dent on the national or conference scale in any of Tommy Bowden's nine seasons at the helm. The one possible crack in the offensive foundation in 2008 is the offensive line, as four starters must be replaced. The positive spin is that last year's OL was a major disappointment, as they allowed 35 sacks and didn't open enough holes and lanes for Davis and Spiller to work their magic, so new blood may be just what is needed. The troubling aspect to the prolific Clemson attacks these last few years has been the propensity to completely buckle against a good pass rush, as four opponents last season held the Tigers to less than 2 yards per carry, and one of them was Furman. That's poor OL technique and development, and shoddy gameplan adjustment. In fact, for all the gushing about the Tigers' talent on this side of the ball, they finished just 50th nationally in total, 46th nationally in passing, and 52nd nationally in rushing offense in 2007. Rob Spence, you got some 'splainin to do.

Defense: Lost in all the commotion surrounding Harper, Spiller, Davis and crew is the Clemson defense - the one that finished ninth nationally in total defense and was the far more reliable and consistent aspect of the Clemson Tigers in 2007. And the good news for the Clemson faithful is that eight starters are back this season, led by the best defensive line and easily the best secondary in the conference. The linebackers are solid if unspectacular. But that line - freakin' wow. On top of returning starters Ricky Sapp, Dorrell Scott and Rashaad Jackson, the Tigers add true freshman Da'Quan Bowers - their top recruit in the winter - at DE and JUCO All-American transfer Jarrett Crittenton as Sapp's backup. The secondary is anchored by safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons (191 tackles combined in '07) while the weak link (relatively speaking) is corner Crezdon Butler and he'll probably get an Honorable Mention on the all-ACC team in '08. Not too shabby.

Special Teams: A catastrophe is probably the way to describe this unit's performance in the 2007. Special teams weren't exactly stellar in the three-point losses to Boston College and Auburn, but they directly caused the Tigers' two other losses last year (Virginia Tech had two returns for TDs and had another called back, while four missed field goals, a punt blocked deep in their territory and a fumbled kickoff resulted in a 13-3 loss to Georgia Tech). So it's with dampened enthusiasm that I say that kicker Mark Buchholz and punter Jimmy Maners return. But it is with unbridled fervor that I say that returners CJ Spiller and Jacoby Ford are back, although they could buck up a bit on the punt return average (just 8.8yds per return last year).

Coaching: Tommy Bowden is quite the enigma. He can go 12-0 at Tulane, but can't get the Tigers to finish better than third in the ACC in any of his nine seasons at Clemson, nor can he seem to break the 10-win mark. You'd think just once - even by accident - a 10-win campaign would have been achieved sometime since 1999, but you'd be mistaken. Since Bowden took the reins, the following ACC progams have won 10 or more games in a season: Maryland (three times), FSU (three times), NC State (once), Wake (once), BC (twice in the last three years), and Virginia Tech (every year since joining the league). For all the grief Mack Brown used to get about never winning a league title (pre-2005), he at least delivered a number of 10-win seasons and Top 10 finishes, something Bowden hasn't come close to doing (his best finish in terms of record and ranking was the 9-3, #16 campaign in 2000). He's managed to finish out of the rankings more often than not (5 of his 9 years) and has finished either 5-3 or 4-4 in the ACC in 8 of his 9 seasons. My friends, there is a word for that type of performance and that word is mediocre. In it's purest form. And that's a back-handed compliment as well, because not once in Bowden's nine seasons has Clemson finished with a losing record, something every other pre-expansion ACC program not named Florida State or Georgia Tech has done at least twice since 1999. But that's lowering the bar in terms of expectations and achievement pretty significantly for a place like Clemson, which is all the more reason why I'm mystified at Bowden's fat raise and 5-year contract extension this past December. Maybe the fact that Bowden has cleaned up on the recruiting trail lately and stabilized his coaching staff (both OC Rob Spence and DC Vic Koenning are entering their fourth seasons in Tigertown) has convinced the Tiger admins and fatcats that the nine-year odyssey of mediocrity has come to an end and things have finally been figured out. Because if Bowden got that raise based on what they saw on the field and in the standings these past nine seasons, or based solely on the fear that he might be poached by another program, there's little hope that Clemson will ever get back to being the national power and ACC overlord they were so many years ago.

Odds & Ends: Clemson and Bowden are 0-3 against Atlantic Division rival Boston College since expansion, but two of the losses came in overtime and the other came in the final two minutes of regulation.....the Tigers are 32-1 under Bowden when they rush for 200+ yards.....for all the tradition and rabid expectations surrounding the program, Clemson hasn't finished in the Top 10 since 1990 and that was also the last time they broke the 10-win barrier

Schedule Analysis: I'm not a fan of the opener in Atlanta with Alabama (the Tigers are just 1-5 against non-Gamecock SEC teams under Bowden) as things will get incredibly sour incredibly early for Clemson and the ACC with a loss, whereas a win won't garner the equivalent amount of hype (unless we're talking 35-0 or so). The Tigers then get a relatively easy September, and then a bye week in early October before the Thursday night showdown at Wake. They get another off week before back-to-back trips to BC and FSU. A jaunt to Virginia (upset alert) comes just before the finale with arch-rival South Carolina. That BC-FSU stretch is the biggest pothole on the slate, but the rest of the schedule is very manageable and is set up for an division title and perhaps even a national championship run if Spiller/Davis/Harper morph together to become Tommy Bowden's Vince Young.
Projected Wins: The Citadel, N.C. State, South Carolina State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, @Boston College, Duke, South Carolina
Projected Losses: none
Toss-Ups: vs. Alabama, @Wake Forest, @Florida State, @Virginia
Primo Tiger Blogs: Sporting Gnomes, Danny Ford is God

Heartwarming You-Tubery:

Would you believe Clemson lost nine games in the last two years with these guys? I wouldn't either except, well...they did.

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