Preseason countdown: No. 23 Clemson
Patience is running thin around Death Valley after Clemson suffered its first losing season since 1998.
Whatever goodwill coach Dabo Swinney enjoyed after copping the Atlantic Division in 2009 is now gone. His Tigers slumped to 6-7 a year ago with a squad that had enough talent to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. The team lacked consistency, especially in tight games, and failed to generate much pop on offense. A 31-26 bowl loss to South Florida was a fitting end for a disappointing campaign. Realizing that his margin for error has never been so narrow, the coach made changes to his staff, hoping to find the right formula for success.
The biggest difference this fall will be initiated by new coordinator Chad Morris, who’s been tasked with revamping the offense. The former Tulsa assistant and Gus Malzahn disciple will employ an up-tempo, no-huddle attack designed to catch opposing defenses off guard. In order to be successful, he’ll need to coach up young QB Tajh Boyd. The one-time can’t-miss recruit has all of the physical skills to click early, but has just 63 career passing attempts. And digesting a new scheme often produces a little indigestion. It’s a good thing he’ll get a boost from a pair of rising stars, RB Andre Ellington and WR DeAndre Hopkins, and the bulk of last year’s starting line.
While the Tiger defense lost a lot of talent to the NFL, attracting stoppers to the program has rarely been a problem. Some of the faces will be new, but with DE Andre Branch and DT Brandon Thompson setting the tone up front, the results may not deviate much from a year ago. Coordinator Kevin Steele is one of the best teachers in the game, and has plenty of gifted pupils in his classroom.
This is a pivotal year for Clemson, particularly as divisional foe Florida State begins to crank up the engine under Jimbo Fisher. For Swinney, who started fast as the mid-year replacement to Tommy Bowden in 2008, it could be a case of win now or go home. He pulled down another fantastic recruiting class in February, which will ironically only heighten expectations this fall.
What to watch for on offense: The rate of retention. From the pace to the playbook, everything will be new now that Morris is taking over the offense. His is a time-tested attack similar to the one that helped Auburn to a national championship last season. However, like those Tigers in 2009, there could be significant growing pains at Clemson this fall. The staff is going to get the system fully installed, but how long will it take before the Tigers are running it efficiently? If it doesn’t happen early enough in 2011, the program could clean house before the coaches even get a second chance to smooth out the wrinkles.
What to watch for on defense: The impact of the rookies. Clemson reeled in a bumper crop of recruits earlier in the year, many of whom will not be asked to redshirt. DE Corey Crawford has already made waves in practice, elevating to the second unit. It’s at linebacker, however, where the Tigers are well-stocked for the future, signing blue-chippers Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward, and Lateek Townsend. At a need area this fall, all three will have a shot to earn playing time — and a letter — this season.
This team will be far better if: Clemson improves in nail-biters. The Tigers played seven games decided by less than 10 points a year ago, and dropped six of them. Blown chip-shot field goals were an important culprit. One of the losses was a 27-24 overtime heartbreaker at eventual national champ Auburn. If they can become a better second-half club, which falls on the players and the coaching staff, the record is going to improve appreciably. This issue has been growing under Dabo Swinney, who’s just 3-10 in games decided by single-digits the last two years.
The schedule: The Tigers start out with a nice tune-up against Troy, possibly the Sun Belt's best team. A layup against Wofford is forgivable with a date against Auburn to follow, and then comes the make-or-break stretch. ACC play kicks off with a key Atlantic date against Florida State, followed up by the first road game of the season, at
Best offensive player: Junior RB Andre Ellington. By missing almost half of the 2010 season with a toe problem, Ellington lost an opportunity to garner a satchel full of accolades in his second season. At the time of the injury, he’d run for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding a dozen catches for 109 yards and another score. Back at full strength, he’s poised to become one of the ACC’s brightest offensive playmakers of 2011. The junior can out run most defensive backs to the end zone, and flashes the open-field moves to earn the moniker "Juke" Ellington.
Best defensive player: Senior DT Brandon Thompson. Although he’ll get pushed for top honors by DE Andre Branch and FS Rashard Hall, the staff is convinced the senior is due for a breakout finale. At 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds, he has anchor potential against the run. Tough at the point of attack, he plays low to the ground in an effort to maintain his base. Although 56 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, and 15 quarterback hurries weren’t enough to land All-ACC honors, No. 98 will be much harder to overlook at the end of 2011.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Tajh Boyd. No. 10 will be the Tajh Mahal for Clemson fans, who hope their quarterback will be another recognizable structure by October. The Tigers’ fortunes this year hinge on an offense getting a facelift under first-year coordinator Chad Morris. And no other player carries more importance than the man behind center. As Boyd goes, so goes the 2011 squad, an immense amount of pressure for such an untested performer.
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The season will be a success if: Clemson wins eight games. If the Tigers finish comfortably above .500 in the first year with a new offensive system, there’ll be continuity heading into 2012. The program needs to get back on the rails, while getting the young playmakers up to speed with Morris’ unique blueprint. A quality bowl game should settle restless natives, especially since Clemson travels to South Carolina and Virginia Tech, and hosts Auburn and Florida State.
Key game: Sept. 17 vs. Auburn. Not only are the reigning national champs in town, but Week 3 is the beginning of a wicked, make-or-break stretch for Clemson. After Auburn visits, Florida State and Virginia Tech will be waiting in the on-deck circle. With a schedule that’s back-loaded with road games, the Tigers will need to hold serve at home as often as possible. The battle of the Tigers is also an interesting rematch of last September’s game won by Auburn in an extra session, 27-24