Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Season Predictions

Hope springs eternal – or at least for two more weeks. This time of year, everyone is undefeated, including perennial pre-season national champion South Carolina, where next year may finally be this year.

But what about us? What will this year bring for the orange and purple? Can Clemson emulate last year’s start – or will they replicate the ending? Will the offense be better – or have a sophomore slump? Can Venables fix the D, or will the Civil students continue to make comparisons nerdy puns about football and sieves? Can Clemson end the run against USC – or will evil continue to reign?

The questions for this year are many. It will only take a few right answers to have a magical season – one that exceeds last year. But it will only take a few wrong answers to send Clemson back to the land of mediocrity – and Dabo to the hotseat.

And while we can’t answer every question, we can answer some. Here is TigerSwag’s attempt to answer five looming questions hanging over this year’s team.

Can the Offense duplicate last year’s success?
When Dabo went out and snagged Chad Morris from Tulsa, many thought he was crazy. He hired a 1st year coordinator at a mid-major and handed him the reigns to the Clemson offense. But to Dabo's credit, well actually Morris', Clemson's offense improved drastically. In fact, it became the basis of an ACC Championship. And the improvements were noticed on paper too, as the Clemson offense improved from 84th to 27th in points per game and 88th to 26th in yards per game.

But is this offense sustainable? Can it take us to the next level? I'm by no means a doubter, just a guy with a decent memory. Because if we go back just 5-6 years, we see a similar production increase due to a new Offensive Coordinator. That mastermind? Rob Spence. In his first year at Clemson, the offense went from 109th in yards per game and 90th in points per game to 51st and 61st, respectively. The following year? Top 16 in both categories. But two years later, when Dabo took over for Bowden, his first personnel decision was to let Spence go.

But the history lesson aside, this Clemson offense is impressive. Four of the five top skill positions return, including the best 1-2 receiver tandem in the country. But how effective this offense is won't depend on the skill positions, but on the big boys. The real question for this offense is how the revamped offensive line performs. If these guys are solid, then Clemson can easily exceed last year's success and challenge the best defenses in the country. If they struggle, or the injury bug bites, then Clemson fans will have to exorcise two demons - turnovers and visions of Will Proctor running for his life.

Personally, I look for ALL-ACC member Dalton Freeman to have a big year and move up the draft boards, Tyler Shatley to bring some nasty, and Brandon Thompson to be solid in protecting Boyd's blindside. But this is a young group. Three of the projected starters have never started a game and all three have combined for less than 100 snaps. That does not bode well when your first game is in the Georgia Dome against a blitz happy Brian VanGorder.

How much better will the Defense be?
This question is worded this way because it couldn't be much worse - at least statistically. Last year this group was feast or famine. Against Virginia Tech - amazing. Everyone else - Meh to Ugh.

The Good News? But Kevin Steele is out and Brent Venables is in.

The Bad News? Most of the pass rush is gone (Branch, Thompson, Moore, & Brown) as is a starting corner in Sensabaugh.

The Good News? All the linebackers return, including 5* backer Tony Steward from an ACL injury, and a focused 4* in Lateek Townsend.

But similar to the offense, how the line performs will tell the tale as to how the defense performs. The ends have a ton of speed and potential in guys like Goodman, Crawford, Beasley, & Barnes, but the center of the line is young and inexperienced. If a few of these guys can step up and help replace a guy like Brandon Thompson, then the defense can make major gains. If they struggle and the center of the line is exposed, then the defense will become the offense's biggest fans, hoping they can once again save their bacon.

I expect we'll see a more fundamentally sound defense - and one that produces more turnovers, but overall, I'm not convinced the defense will be that much better.

At least not yet.

Is a return trip to Charlotte in the cards?
The schedule opens with a bang as Clemson takes on Auburn in Atlanta. While Clemson has the better team, many of the questions raised above need to be answered - and, unfortunately, it will be on the job training. Throw in Clemson's record in Atlanta and the suspension of Sammy Watkins, and this game is scary.

But the best news Clemson fans received all winter was Auburn's hiring of Scot Loefler as their Offensive Coordinator. Not because he's a bad coach (he actually looks quite impressive), but because he appears to be scrapping the hurry-up, no-huddle (which has historically killed Clemson) for more of a pro-style offense, which favors Clemson's strengths.

If Clemson can get through the Auburn game, then the schedule takes a break until they head to Florida State. This early season battle may wind up being a showdown for the Atlantic Division Title, and the advantage goes to FSU being at home.

A road game at Boston College shouldn't be too much trouble, but Clemson never plays well against BC, especially in Boston. The Tigers then get back to back Techs, both at home, with Georgia Tech first followed by the Open Date and Virginia Tech.

At this point, the schedule eases up a good bit with Wake, Duke, & Maryland - all should be wins. Then NC State and USC come to Death Valley to complete the season.

The Clemson win tally should start with six (Ball State, Furman, BC, Wake, Duke, & Maryland) and go up from there. If you split the six toss-ups, then Clemson finishes 9-3 with a chance to get to 10 wins again in a bowl game, but no return trip. The Tigers will need some help from FSU to overcome the early season loss in Tallahassee - and I don't see them getting it.

What’s the best Clemson fans can hope for?
This team has no ceiling. The offensive skill players return and the defense will have a new attitude. The biggest test will come from FSU on the road, but Clemson has played well there the last three trips, with a win in 2006. If they can emulate 2006 and win this game, the schedule lends itself to something magical. The remaining road games are tame while both Techs, NC State, & USC all come to Death Valley.

If this team beats FSU, can it handle the pressure of playing for great things? They got a taste of the milk and honey last year, only to end up with a bitter aftertaste.

The best case scenario is this team learns from last year, fights through some close wins, ends USC's meager winning streak and heads to Charlotte with dreams of a shot for the National Title.


What’s the worst Clemson fans should brace for?
While this team has no ceiling, it does have a floor - albeit one surrounded by mediocrity. If the offensive line struggles to jell, the defensive line can't get pressure, and a few key injuries occur, this team may be playing USC just to become bowl eligible.

For instance, all six toss-up games could easily go against Clemson. And worse, USC could cruise through the SEC East and treat Clemson like an appetizer before heading to Atlanta.

Or maybe Clemson overachieved last year.

Or maybe Ron Cherry referees every game and Terry Don Phillips chooses not to retire.

Summary
This team could very well compete for a National Championship or it could easily be home for the holidays. And much like politics, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

And this team will exemplify the middle.

I expect their record to be somewhere between the floor of 6-6 and the ceiling of 12-0. I expect the offense to operate somewhere between setting records and returning to mediocrity. I expect the defense to operate somewhere between holding Virginia Tech to 13 points over 8 quarters and giving up 70 to West Virginia in just 4.

And after the ups and downs Clemson has been through the last 10+ years, a ride in the middle may just be what we need.

Because as USC fans say, "Wait til Next Year"!

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