The Clemson Tigers enter the 2012 season ranked 8th nationally according to USA Today. This comes in large part because of the return of 2012 ACC Player-of-the-Year Tajh Boyd, and the momentum of their thrilling 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Chandler Catanzaro kicked a game-winning 37-yard field goal as time expired. This came moments after Clemson converted a fourth-and-16 play to keep the drive alive. It was the school's fourth 11-win season, and their first since their 1981 national championship team went 12-0.
The hype in Tiger Town is palpable. The school will host College Gameday on the day of their highly anticipated matchup against Georgia on opening weekend. If you want to read more about this season's hype check out my friend and Clemson graduate Ryan Kantor's post about them here. You can also get daily updates on all things Clemson at Shakin The Southland.
We all know about Clemson's starting quarterback Tajh Boyd. Boyd was the ACC Player-of-the-Year last year as he threw for nearly 4,000 yards while completing over 67% of his passing attempts and ranked 5th nationally in quarterback rating. He also threw 36 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. Right now Boyd remains the odds on favorite to earn the honor of ACC Player-of-the-Year.
The Clemson offensive line will be headlined by left tackle Brandon Thomas who has 23 career starts and was a 1st team All-ACC selection 2012. In fact, every starter on the offensive line, with the exception of center Ryan Norton, has at least 11 career starts. Overall, the Tigers have 59 starts among their starting offensive lineman, and the line should give Tajh Boyd the protection needed in order to hit Sammy Watkins deep.
Clemson's most notable losses from last year's team are at the skill positions. The Tigers lost running back Andre Ellington who ran for over 3,400 yards and scored 35 total touchdowns during his career. Roderick McDowell will have to step in and fill Ellington's role. McDowell actually averaged more yards/carry than Ellington did last season, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep that average up as his load increases.
Fans will also notice that DeAndre Hopkins will no longer be on the perimeter for the Tigers. While this may help ACC defensive coordinators sleep a bit easier, I'm sure they will still be worried about junior Sammy Watkins. Watkins was a 1st team All-American as a true freshman, but suffered a bit of a sophomore slump, as he only scored a paltry 3 touchdowns compared to his 12 the year before. I expect Watkins to return to freshman form, but the real question is if Martavis Bryant can become a reliable number two receiver. The Tigers will also be without tight end Brandon Ford, who caught 40 balls and 8 touchdowns last season. Clemson still has plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball, but they are going to have to replace a lot of production.
The defensive line should be the strength of this Clemson defense. They should start four juniors on the line; three of whom started at least nine games last season. The other is Vic Beasley who, despite playing limited snaps last season, still led the team in sacks (8.0). Like Roderick McDowell, we have to wonder if Beasley can improve upon those numbers and carry the workload of more snaps. This unit should create a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which should help their pass defense, which was ranked 73rd nationally last season.
The linebacker unit will be without Jonathan Willard who led the team in tackles last season with 86. Despite losing Willard, the unit should still have plenty of experience as the three expected starters (Spencer Shuey, Stephone Anthony and Quandon Christian) all had seven starts last season. That makes for a very experienced front-seven, and should allow Clemson to improve on their ACC ranking of 7th in total defense.
Now it's time for the biggest question mark of Clemson's team - their secondary. 3 of their top 6 leading tacklers last year were defensive backs. All 3 just so happened to be seniors, so this not good news if you're a Tiger fan. Again, this is a secondary that ranked 73rd nationally in pass defense last year, and they lost 75% of their starters. Safety Travis Blanks should be the best player in this year's secondary. Blanks started 8 games last season, and was 7th on the team in tackles with 49. The other safety is expected to be Robert Smith who has just one career start and only had 12 tackles all of last season. At corner, it's probably going to be Garry Peters and Bashaud Breeland. It's also possible that Darius Robinson or Martin Jenkins will start. Jenkins missed last season due to a hernia injury. Will this secondary swiss cheese? We'll find out when Aaron Murray and the Georgia Bulldogs come to town.
Clemson should be very solid on special teams this year. They return kicker Chandler Catanzaro who ranked 4th nationally in FG% at 94.7% (18/19). Sophomore Bradley Pinion will replace Spencer Benton as the team's full time punter, but the Tigers shouldn't experience a drop off as Pinion had a very similar average in limited action last season. Pinion will also serve as the team's kickoff specialist as he did towards the end of last season. Pinion had a touchback% of 67% on 27 kickoff attempts last year. On kick returns they will look to Sammy Watkins to return to freshman form. He averaged 25 yards/return in 2011 compared to 20 in 2012.
Clemson should absolutely compete for the ACC Championship #analysis . But seriously, this team returns the ACC Player-of-the-Year at quarterback, has an excellent deep threat in Sammy Watkins, has an experienced line, and should have an excellent front-seven on defense. They should really go at worst 7-1 in the ACC. It's really unacceptable if they lose an ACC game besides the Florida State one. I do think this team is slightly overrated at #8, mostly due to their win over LSU. If they don't convert that fourth-and-16, then I think they are mostly likely looking at a #15 ranking, which I believe is more fair. That said, they converted, and I give them credit. Look for Tajh Boyd to be a serious contender for the Heisman as well. Tiger Rag will be heard often in Death Valley this fall.Somehow a grown man named Dabo built himself a powerhouse. Can he eliminate the term Clemsoning from the fan base's vocabulary? That remains to be seen, but I believe it's going to be a good year to be a Clemson fan.