It’s been a long and anxious wait for August 31st, but we’re getting close. As I previously wrote, this is the most anticipated Clemson football season in memory and expectations couldn’t be higher. That’s because Tajh Boyd decided to return for his redshirt senior season, a decision that vaulted him into Heisman discussion and Clemson into National Title hype. Superstar wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, was drafted by the Houston Texans in the first round while senior running back Andre Ellington was drafted by the Cardinals in the 6th, and senior tight end Brandon Ford signed with the New England Patriots. Despite losing such major pieces, Clemson returns plenty of talent around quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Sammy Watkins, Charone Peake, and Martavis Bryant provide dangerous deep threats (all three wide receivers ran a unofficial sub-4.30 40 yard dash), while Adam Humphries and redshirt freshman Gerome Hopper can be above average in the slot.
Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell, now a senior, will finally get a chance to start at running back and will have plenty of depth behind him. More importantly, he’ll have plenty of experience in front of him as the O-line returns all but Center Dalton Freeman.
The defense is certainly a bigger concern than the offense. They surrendered 24.8 points per game in 2012, good for just 48th. After seeing the unit “click” in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and now having a full year with Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables, many believe they’ll make strides this season. The secondary was porous last year, and while both safeties (Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks) are gone, Travis Blanks is shifting there full-time, bringing reason for optimism. Additionally, a cornerback corps that struggled with injuries is finally healthy.
Improved play up front will ease pressure on the secondary. The defensive line lost just one player (Malliciah Goodman, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons) and he is replaced by Vic Beasley who coaches have been raving about for months. The more experienced line should help everyone behind them. The defensive front allowed an average of just 102 rushing yards in their last six games, including only 99 from LSU. They should grow even tougher against the run, so it will be stopping opposing passing attacks that poses the biggest weakness for the Clemson Tigers.
In a June 30th article regarding realistic expectations, I mentioned that I would be using “victory likelihood percentages” rather than randomly picking winners of the UGA and SC-Columbia games and throwing in an upset. I’ve used the (very) early spreads (here) and my own research to generate these percentages. Using a 1,000 season simulator created by @Robert_Reinhard, I’ve turned these game-by-game percentages into final season predictions at the end of article.
If you disagree with my percentages and would like to see your own percentages run through the simulator please feel free to post your numbers in the comments below and I’ll run your numbers through the simulator. Now, on to the game-by-game analysis. Enjoy and please leave your thoughts in the comments at the bottom.
The rivalry is renewed as the Bulldogs make the 90 minute trip to Tiger Town for the front-end of a home-and-home. The early line has the spread at 3.5 points in UGA’s favor.
UGA has returned essentially all their starters on offense and lost all but four defense, give or take. Their secondary is especially thin, which bodes well for Clemson’s vaunted aerial attack. The Dawgs have suspended Josh Harvey-Clemons, who was set to be the starter at safety (UGA has the strictest drug policy in the SEC). ESPN calls it a “huge blow.” Additionally, two promising freshman who were likely to get playing time against Clemson have suffered injuries and will not play at all this season.
“Paris Bostick, a freshman safety from Tampa, underwent surgery on his left big toe recently and will have to be medically redshirted… Bostick becomes the second true freshman defensive back to be lost for the year while recovering for surgery. Cornerback Reggie Wilkerson, an early enrollee who had worked himself into a backup role at boundary corner, suffered an ACL injury during voluntary workouts this summer and also will be redshirted.”
While their defense may be young and untested (likely to start just one senior), they are not without talent, but it’ll be a lot to ask this defense to stop possibly the best offense in the country so early on in the season. In fact, with Oregon suffering Chip Kelly’s departure to the NFL, we may see the two best offenses in the entire nation face off in the opening week. No wonder it’s one of the 10 toughest tickets in all of college football this season.
UGA’s offense returns the entire offensive line, possibly the best running back duo in the country, and an elite quarterback (36 TDs last season). This one has all the making of a shootout, yet it is likely to come down to defense. Both will be overwhelmed with the immensely talented offenses opposing them, however Clemson showed significant improvement down the stretch in 2012, most notably in their victory against LSU. With a College Gameday crowd behind them, the Clemson defense could step up and get just the couple stops needed to win. Clemson is fortunate to play UGA in week one, before their defense rounds into form and while at least one, maybe more, Bulldogs are suspended. It’s a complete toss up game, but at home, (slight) edge Tigers!
Victory Likelihood: 51%
South Carolina State
Here’s what you need to know about this FCS opponent. They had a losing record last season. They visited Clemson in 2008 and took a 0-54 loss. This should be an opportunity for Coach Swinney to get some reps for the second team. That said, this is my favorite FCS opponent to play because their band is out of this world. Absolutely, under no circumstance should you leave your seat at halftime.
Victory Likelihood: >99%
at North Carolina State (Thursday)
Much like UNC last season, which played nine games in the state of North Carolina, the Wolfpack won’t venture out-of-state until a October 26th trip to Tallahassee, FL. Their only other out-of-state game will be at Boston College. They play eight home games, one of which is a Thursday night game against Clemson. Thursday night games pose a unique challenge for road teams, but Clemson will benefit from a bye in the preceding week and should carry a huge advantage heading into this one.
Dave Doeren enters his first season as the Wolfpack head coach after leading Northern Illinois to an Orange Bowl appearance last year. He’ll implement a spread offense, but will be doing so with a new quarterback as Mike Glennon is off the NFL. In fact, they’ll replace the majority of their starters on each side of the ball and while they have the facilities and they believe the coach in place to build a winner, it doesn’t happen overnight.
The Wolfpack’s surprise win over FSU showed they can’t be taken lightly, but even on a Thursday Night, Clemson should be able to collect a road win against a program with a new coach, new system, and a bevy of new starters. On a slightly more cheery note for Wolfpack readers, this year’s cake walk schedule is well-timed. With the transition underway, now is not the time for a demanding schedule and they certainly don’t have one. They could easily win eight games and still be a barely mediocre squad.
An interesting side note, the new Clemson Defensive Backs Coach, Mike Reed will face his 2012 employer.
Victory Likelihood: 86%
Victory Likelihood: 94%
Syracuse joins the ACC Atlantic this season after escaping the Big East, but they’ll mostly contribute merely through their proximity to a large media market. Their first season in the conference will also be their first under head coach Scott Schafer (previously the defensive coordinator). Doug Marrone has departed to coach the Buffalo Bills and has brought seven coaches with him. Star quarterback, Ryan Nassib, along with his top two receivers have departed. Phil Steele did not project the Orange to make a bowl game in his annual season preview.
It will be a long trip and a new venue for Clemson which is unsettling. Still, playing in a dome should be no problem (ask LSU) and the extra two days of rest. There’s absolutely no reason Clemson should lose to a 5 or 6 win team.
Victory Likelihood 89%
In 2012, the Eagles actually gave Clemson a bit of a scare in Chestnut Hill, sticking around for most of the game and scoring 31 points. Overall though, Boston College had yet another poor year amidst an ugly four-year program decline. They finished 2-10 and fired Head Coach Frank Spaziani (this hyperlinked article on that firing and culture of the area may make you wish BC was never invited to the ACC). Although Steve Addazio, an Urban Meyer disciple, was hired away from Temple, Vegas has the over/under for BC’s regular season wins at just 4.5.
The Eagles return a fairly solid senior quarterback in Chase Rettig, however he’ll stand behind a shaky offensive line and has little in the way of offensive weapons–certainly nothing like Sammy Watkins (or Charone Peake for that matter). On defense, the Eagles again boast strong linebackers which seems to be the hallmark of the program, but their secondary, is particularly weak (in-depth BC Football preview here). Tajh Boyd should have a field day in this favorable matchup.
Clemson will be at home concluding the easiest stretch of their schedule (Wake, @Syracuse, BC). So long as they don’t look past this matchup in anticipation of FSU, who comes to town the following week, this won’t be close.
FUN FACT: BC plays a road game at New Mexico State this season. Why are they in the ACC again?
Victory Likelihood: 98%
The Seminoles have lost a lot coming into this season, however they’ve rebuilt the program to the point where expectations remain high regardless. That’s a big step back to prominence, but to meet expectations this season they’ll have to overcome the loss of six assistant coaches, QB EJ Manuel, and seven NFL picks just on the defensive side of the ball. That includes the 24th pick of the draft DE Bjoern Werner (led the ACC with 13 sacks) and the 25th pick DB Xavier Rhodes.
The defense will be led by first time defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt who was the defensive backs coach under Saban at Alabama. He’ll take over a unit that led the ACC with 36 sacks (Clemson had 34). The biggest difference from last year will be the front seven where FSU was so dominant last season. Three defensive linemen and three linebackers were drafted away. Mario Edwards Jr. a rising sophomore defensive end is very talented and was the number one defensive recruit out of high school. He seems primed to lead the Seminole pass rush. With all the talent FSU has been stockpiling throughout the recruiting process they’ll have plenty of depth to replace the NFL departures, however they will no longer look like the New York Giants.
On the offensive side of the ball, EJ Manuel is off to the Buffalo Bills and Clint Trickett, who started and played a great game in Death Valley in 2011, transferred to West Virginia. The Seminoles turn to redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston. He was a very highly touted recruit and expectations are sky-high, but he was born in… 1994! How old does that make him, like 11? Maybe I’m getting old, but how in the world is this offense going to do what they did last year with an 18-year-old at the helm (FSU finished 2012 3rd in yards per play)?
One thing I don’t like about this matchup is that FSU enjoys a bye the week prior. Still, with the coaching turnover, an unbelievable amount of talent to replace after an impressive Miami Hurricanes type of NFL draft, and an 18-year-old at quarterback I’m not picking the Seminoles to repeat as ACC Champions or Atlantic winners. What makes me most confident though, is the fact that they’ve lost their last five games in Death Valley. This may not be the best FSU team that has traveled to Death Valley in that decade, but it will be the best Clemson Tiger team they’ve faced. I’m giving the Tigers a bold and confident…
Victory Likelihood: 67%
When Maryland fired Ralph Friedgen, a quality coach who had just won nine games, we were left to wonder “who do you think you are?” Maryland is basketball school with a failing athletic department, failing so bad they had to move to a far off conference for extra cash. After that 9-win 2010 season, the Terrapins opted for the bold move brought in Randy Edsall from UConn. A splashy hire that hasn’t worked so far, as they’ve netted just six wins over the last two season.
Last season can largely be written off to a ridiculous bevy of injuries, but Edsall, despite my support, will find himself on the hot seat if Maryland’s ACC swan song doesn’t end in a bowl game. The Terrapins should improve and will boast one of the nation’s more electrifying receivers in Stefon Diggs. They’ll have an actual quarterback (rather than a linebacker, as was necessitated by injury) throwing to him as CJ Brown, the speedy quarterback who gave us fits in our last visit to College Park should be back and healthy. It’s likely their offense will improve quite a bit and it could aggravate the Clemson D, but they also return just five starters on defense.
Although I’m not at all sad to see Maryland leave the conference, and get replaced by Louisville (who will be an upgrade in all three major sports) this is a road trip I am anxious to make. It’ll be our last chance to see Clemson play against this ACC charter member, and should be a defense Tajh can roll right through, barring a Seminole hangover.
Victory Probability: 82%
I can’t claim I ever thought Mike London would be a bust. In fact, I called the strong 2011 season and figured the program would grow from there. After the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance, the Cavaliers finished just 4-8 last season. This offseason they added former NC State head coach, Tom O’Brien, to the staff as an assistant. They’ll have a veteran offensive line and should improve, but eclipsing .500 may be a challenge as they will play BYU, Oregon, Clemson, @Miami, @UNC, and VT.
Clemson was once considered “soft” and “finesse.” That label is being shed, and nobody owns it more than UVA, as Cowherd explains in excruitiating detail below (must watch). Clemson will beat these “underachieving, cookie dough, ascot-wearing, bran muffin eatin’ weenies.”
“You’re no threat in big college football.” – Colin Cowherd
Victory Probability: 89%
Georgia Tech (Thursday)
This year’s game will be in Clemson for the second consecutive year. Adding to the quirkiness, Clemson University will have to handle the traffic and headaches of hosting a Thursday Night ESPN game. The Tigers haven’t hosted a Thursday night game since 2002, typically getting stuck playing them on the road.
When Georgia Tech asked to play Clemson in Death Valley a second year in a row (a move that allows them to host either Clemson or UGA every year and ensure themselves at least one home sellout) the Tigers caught a big break. Not only does it make sense in the long run (Louisville/SC-Columbia at home on even numbered years, GT/FSU on odd numbered years), but it makes a big difference in Clemson’s chances at improving on their 10-win regular season from a year ago.
The Tigers went 1-4 against GT in my four years as a student (2007-2011) including 0-4 away from Death Valley. GT head coach Paul Johnson will hope to rekindle that magic. In 2008 and 2009 he led the Jackets to a 5-2 record against Clemson, VT, and UGA–since then just 1-8.
Both squads enter the game coming off a bye week and both will need it. Clemson must to prepare for a gimmick offense and a Yellow Jacket team that returns seven players on offense and eight on defense. The Jackets, playing a road weekday game, need it to counter the disadvantage of losing a day for travel on a short week. The ACC has done a good giving bye weeks before Thursday Night ESPN games as of late.
GT is excited to begin the Vad Lee era. The talented Sophomore takes over at quarterback and will run the triple option behind four returning O-linemen. More importantly, the awful defense should improve as they return eight starters and fully implement the 4-3 with new defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who took over after Al Groh was fired.
Georgia Tech is always tricky and I see them improving a bit (from 6-6 regular season) to seven or eight regular season wins. The Sun Bowl victory over the Trojans, Vad Lee, and an improving defense are reasons to worry. Nonetheless, at home, following a bye, Clemson should take care of business.
Victory Likelihood: 80%
Kent State was originally scheduled in this slot, but ACC Commissioner, John Swofford spoiled that with his waffling between an eight-game and a nine-game conference schedule. When he moved the conference to the nine-game schedule, the Tigers were forced to drop Kent State from their 2013 schedule (and Central Michigan from the 2014 slate). When they (rightly) moved back to the eight-game schedule Clemson scrambled and had to settle on a second in-state, FCS program.
The Citadel Bulldogs (yes the third Bulldogs on the schedule along with UGA and South Carolina State), finished 7-4 (5-3) in the FCS’s premier conference–the Southern Conference–in 2012. They’re certainly better than South Carolina State, but they’ll be heavily over-matched at virtually every position. The slot right before a trip to Columbia makes this a bit of a trap game, but it shouldn’t matter. This is the least interesting game on the schedule.
Victory Likelihood: >99%
at South Carolina, Columbia Campus
South Carolina lost their biggest play maker on offense, Ace Sanders, and their top five linebackers from a year ago. They’ll have to rely on James Davis’s little brother, Mike, at running back. With such obstacles, the Cocks will be hard pressed to live up the pre-season top 5 hype, but in their favor is a soft schedule that looks quite a bit like the ones Spurrier complained about UGA getting the past two seasons. They face Florida at home and get an easy draw from the West playing neither LSU nor Alabama (Miss St. and Arkansas instead).
The majority of the Gamecock starters on defense have left and while they still have Clowney, it will be a lot to replace. Still, expectations are sky high. Sports Nation calls it the “Clowney Effect.” The answer to any serious deficiency, “Jadeveon Clowney.”
While the Cocks may be a little weaker than in the past two seasons, it’s no coincidence that they’ve beat Clemson four in a row. Their offense has been quietly effective, overcoming injuries at quarterback and running back to win in Death Valley last season and their defense is overwhelming. They recorded six sacks against Clemson last November with Clowney earning 4.5 of them.
Given a relatively favorable schedule leading up to Rivalry Week, it’s likely the Gamecocks will already have 9 or 10 wins before hosting a Clemson Tiger team with as many or even more wins. That should make for one of the biggest games ever played in Williams-Brice. Clowney made some arrogant clown comments when he said that SEC quarterbacks and Tajh Boyd are scared of him. This only adds to the animosity.
If Clemson goes to exact projections they enter Columbia 11-0 and get beat.
— Dave Bartoo (@cfbmatrix) July 14, 2013
South Carolina with only 4 Seniors on their entire roster, lead the way with the highest % of underclassmen. http://t.co/Vrd2Rx42Vw
— Phil Steele (@philsteele042) July 29, 2013
The Gamecocks won’t present as daunting a task as in years past–they severely lack seniority. The Tigers will likely split their two bouts with SEC opponents, and it’s not that I think South Carolina is better than UGA, I don’t. In fact, I expect UGA to beat them in Athens right after playing Clemson. The biggest difference is venue. It’s exceedingly hard to come by road wins against top competition. So while I believe Clemson certainly can win this game, and that is truly a toss up, in
Detroit Columbia an objective observer must say (slight) edge Chickens.
Victory Likelihood 49%
Now, to turn to the simulator for the synopsis. There are three games that are going to be challenging with victory likelihoods of just 49%, 51%, and 67%. The chance of sweeping these three opponents (Columbia, Georgia, and FSU, respectively) is just 17%. I believe we’ll split against UGA and Columbia and defeat the Seminoles.
Chance of 8 wins or less: 12%
Chance of 9 wins: 21%
Chance of 10 wins: 34%
Chance of (any) 11 wins: 26%
Chance of entering Columbia undefeated (11-0): 14%
Chance of leaving Columbia Undefeated (12-0): 7%
Chance of perfect (8-0) ACC record: 28%
The most likely scenario is a strong 10-2 regular season. Assuming one of those 10 wins comes against FSU, the Tigers will make a trip to Charlotte to play for the ACC Championship. My prediction, and now we’re really reaching projecting this far ahead, would be a matchup against Miami. If that’s the case, it’ll be a tremendous showcase for the conference.
I’d set the over/under for Clemson’s regular season win total at 10. If you forced me to pick, I’d take the over.
I close with only one caveat. There’s no way to consider potential injuries or suspensions that may occur in the future. Should Tajh Boyd (God forbid) miss any time our chances of winning dramatically decreases. Conversely, if a player like Jadeveon Clowney is out when we square off, our chances improve. There’s no way to incorporate such random events into the projections so they have not been considered, nor will these projections be edited on the fly to account for such eventualities.
Please leave your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you think, which games you’re most looking forward to or most worried about, and as mentioned, feel free to offer your own victory likelihoods for a run through the simulator.
If you want more, here are some other Clemson season previews worth reading:
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