Of all 120 FBS football programs, Clemson’s year-to-year results may be the most unpredictable. An up-and-down championship season in 2011, makes 2012 even tougher to predict than usual, but here is my best effort.
Clemson Football 2012
Clemson returns a bevy of talented skill players to what was one of the most potent offenses in the country in 2011. Along with a defense that should be markedly improved, you’d think everything would be butterflies and roses, but of course there are some reasons for concern.
Although the starting wide receivers (Watkins, Hopkins, Brown), running back (Andre Ellington), and quarterback (Tajh Boyd) will all return, star tight end, Dwayne Allen, and three of five starting offensive lineman have graduated. First team All-ACC center, Dalton Freeman and Brandon Thomas are the lone returning O-linemen. Freeman will be heavily relied upon for leadership of the group. The performance of the O-line is the single most crucial factor to Clemson’s success in 2012.
On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s defense can only improve after last year’s unit did little to help an often dominant offense (notable exceptions coming in wins against Virginia Tech). The squad will be without arguably its best player in 2011, Andre Branch (DE), who is in the NFL after becoming a second round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Defensive tackles Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore (remember that sack he had with a separated shoulder to beat FSU?) will also be playing on Sundays, leaving the defensive line a bit thin. Clemson has gained a reputation for boasting incredible talent on the D-line, (William “Refrigerator” Perry, Gaines Adams, Da’Quan Bowers, Ricky Sapp, and soon Robert Nkemdiche just to name a few) so that worries me less than the offensive line. A young and talented group of linebackers should improve enough to make up for decline on the defensive line. Of course, the biggest change on the defensive side of the ball will come with the arrival of Brent Venables to take over for the beleaguered Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator.
So, most of the skill players on offense will return, but the offensive line will be almost completely rebuilt. The defense has new leadership coming from the former Oklahoma defensive coordinator, Brent Venables. Although the defensive line may not be as strong as last year’s, improved linebacking should make up the difference and the secondary will be solid. Now on to the predictions…
1. 9/1…Clemson vs. Auburn (GA Dome)
2. 9/8…Ball State @ Clemson
3. 9/15…Furman @ Clemson
This year’s Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game matches a ranked Auburn team that begins the season with two new coordinators against the reining conference champion Clemson Tigers, who start ranked 14th with a new defensive coordinator of their own. With so much uncertainty, this one is awfully hard to predict, but because Clemson’s O-line will just be beginning to gel and Auburn claims its strength on the D-line there will be at least one major advantage slanting in Auburn’s favor. Additionally, Sammy Watkins is suspended for the first two games of the season, precluding him from playing against Auburn. Clemson has started just six seasons away from Death Valley since 1975 and is 1-5 in those season openers. Nothing will surprise me in this one.
Ball State will be a heavy underdog and shouldn’t present much of an issue, though the program did manage some national relevance in 2008 when they cracked the national rankings. They ended that season by losing to Rutgers by 22 in the International Bowl.
Furman, a FCS school, will be Clemson’s third opponent in what is likely to be a snooze-fest in the South Carolina heat. It is my hope that these FCS creampuffs are the replaced by Syracuse in future Clemson schedules–though my fear is that the Auburns of the world will be replaced.
Record after three games: 2-1
4. 9/22…Clemson @ Florida State
5. 9/27…Clemson @ Boston College
6. 10/6…Georgia Tech @ Clemson
Since 1990, the Tigers have managed just one win in Doak Campbell Stadium. With FSU entering this season as the #7 team in the nation according to the USA Today poll, stealing the biggest win of the season in Tallahassee may prove to be too tough a task. Of course, FSU was pre-season ranked #5 last season and ended at #23 (USA Today Poll).
Clemson has struggled with BC in the past, but they can beat them on talent alone this season. I’m looking for the O-line to start showing some promise by this point of the season and some offensive fireworks to come against BC, who lost a major portion of their defense to graduation, including Luke Kuechly.
Stopping Georgia Tech’s gimmicky, infuriating option often posed an issue for Kevin Steele’s defenses, most memorably in the 2009 ACC Championship game. In this year’s edition of the rivalry Brent Venables will show that he can do what Kevin Steele struggled so mightily with, direct the defense in stopping the triple option as Clemson really begins to hit its stride.
Record after six games: 4-2
7. 10/20…Virginia Tech @ Clemson
8. 10/25…Clemson @ Wake Forest
9. 11/3…Clemson @ Duke
This is where predictions start to go haywire. At this point of the season coming off a win against rival Georgia Tech and a bye week, Clemson should be favored at home against the Hokies. I find it hard to believe that Clemson can beat VT three times in a row, but it is far from unrealistic. Logan Thomas is a very talented quarterback and Virginia Tech always offers solid defense and special teams.
Beating VT and Wake Forest within a five-day span is a lot to ask. Last time Clemson went to Winston-Salem on a Thursday night Tommy Bowden was coaching his last game. The Tigers always have a ridiculous loss (2011 NCSU, 2010 BC, 2009 UMD) so maybe it strikes at this point in the season if they are coming off a big win against VT. Clemson has lost their last three ACC Thursday night road games (2006 @VT, 2008 @WF, 2009 @GT).
Duke is a respectable school and they’re certainly better than they were years ago, but they will be heavily outgunned at nearly every position.
Record after nine games: 6-3
10. 11/10…Maryland @ Clemson
11. 11/17…NC State @ Clemson
12. 11/24…South Carolina @ Clemson
Maryland, the annoying thorn in Clemson’s side. In 2011, the Tigers were Maryland’s only FBS victory and last season Clemson needed a Sammy Watkins led comeback to salvage a victory. Clemson will be at home, they’re more talented, better coached, and shouldn’t lose this game, although nothing shocks me in this series anymore.
After NC State embarrassed Clemson last season, I don’t see them beating the Tigers in Death Valley this year. The Textile Bowl, as the game is dubbed, has been won by Clemson in seven of the last eight matchups.
Finally, we get to the second biggest game of the year. I’ve got my tickets, I’m excited to go, and I’m a little worried that the season will end with a fourth straight loss to South Carolina. The Gamecocks haven’t beat the Tigers four years in a row since 1951-1954.
South Carolina deserves an award for winning the most football games without actually accomplishing anything. They’ve won 20 games over the past two seasons, but lost by 39 in their only first ever SEC championship appearance and are 1-1 in two non-BCS bowls in those years. This year, UGA will be the top Dawg in the SEC East. South Carolina has had a nice run against Clemson, but it ends in a very pedestrian, 8-4 season (their schedule is outrageously difficult).
Overall 9-3 (6-2)
Last season Clemson started strong out of the gates with an 8-0 record and lucid National Championship dreams, but came tumbling down, finishing 2-4 down the stretch and 10-4 overall. Obviously, last season was a major success as the Tigers captured the ever elusive ACC Championship. In 2012, Clemson has an opportunity to improve as the season progresses and their O-line gels. They will continue to build a program that shall eventually be winning BCS bowls on a semi-regular basis (starting in 2013!).
Finally, my 2012 Clemson season preview wouldn’t be complete without pointing out one of the most interesting stats in Clemson football and giving myself a rating for last season’s game picks. Clemson, for whatever reason, is really good in odd-numbered years (e.g., 1981 – National Championship, 1991 – ACC Championship, 2011 – ACC Championship) and really mediocre in even-numbered seasons. Since 1971 Clemson is 85-37-2 in odd-numbered years and 76-49-1 in even-numbered years. 2012 is obviously and unfortunately even-numbered. Take that for what you will.
Last season I picked Clemson to go 9-3 and play for, but lose, the conference championship. They beat my expectations by defeating Virginia Tech in Charlotte, the team I had them losing to in the title match. I picked them to lose to Auburn, GT, and VT and had them beating NC State and South Carolina – Columbia Campus. I’d say those predictions deserve at least a B+.
For another perspective, take a look at this what contributor to SB Nation had to say about Clemson’s upcoming football season and how Greg Wallace of The Anderson Independent Mail sees 2012 going for the Tigers.
Please leave your opinions in the comment section below. I’d love to hear what you think. You may want to copy your comment to your clip board (CTRL+C) before you submit in case WordPress has any posting issues, which isn’t all that rare.
Note: I’d also like to mention a very cool story out of Anderson, SC last weekend. Sammy Watkins accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior and was Baptized at Newspring Church. After his ugly off-season, hearing something so positive from him is a blessing. Additionally, Corico (Hawkins) Wright gave us some touching news in the last week by reconnecting with his father.
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