Clemson Football: Early games loom large

Clemson won’t wait long to find out if they’ll contend for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.  Two of their first three games will be on the road against national powers Georgia and Florida State.  While Dabo Swinney and company must embrace the early challenge, the schedule could not have shaken out much worse for the Tigers.  Rest assured, Clemson will be a better team in October and November than they are in August and September.

The personnel losses of the Clemson offense have been discussed ad nauseam, but the cupboard is not bare.  Offensive coordinator Chad Morris has weapons at his disposal; wide receivers Mike Williams, Charone Peake, and Germone Hopper possess the playmaking ability to ignite the offense.  Peake, of course, tore his ACL early last season, and Williams and Hopper were only freshmen.  But there’s simply too much turnover at the skill positions to mesh instantly with the new quarterback, whoever that may be.  In addition to record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd, over 55% of the Tigers’ touchdowns were produced by departed players.  The defense will have to be lights out early or Clemson will be in serious danger of dropping two of their first three.

Although Georgia struggled last season, finishing 8-5, they dealt with a myriad of injuries at key positions.  Running Backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall make up the most dynamic backfield in the country and will have three starting linemen returning to pave the way.  Quarterback Hutson Mason started the final two games for the Bulldogs and performed fairly well.  Their defense should be one of the most improved units in the country.

Undoubtedly, Florida State will enter 2014 ranked number one in the country.  Although the Seminoles lose some great players, they return Heisman Trophy-winning QB Jameis Winston, WR Rashad Greene, TE Nick O’Leary and four starters from one of the nation’s best offensive lines.  Additionally, they get six starters back from a defense that only allowed 12.1 points per game (best in the nation)!  Clemson and Florida State both have a bye week before their September 20 matchup in Tallahassee.

In all likelihood, Clemson will enter both games as an underdog.  If they fall short in both, the Tigers’ dream of qualifying for the playoffs will be squashed.  That said, if they can split the games (preferably winning at FSU), the season could get interesting for the Tigers.  I have the utmost faith in Chad Morris to put an excellent offense on the field; however, it will take some time.

jameis-winston

While the importance of the UGa and FSU games cannot be understated, Clemson still has challenging opponents afterwards.   Heck, they host North Carolina seven days after their trip to Tallahassee.  UNC enters 2014 as the Coastal Division favorite and has one of the best offenses in the ACC.  If former CU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning can turn around the Tar Heels’ defense then UNC may pose a legitimate challenge to FSU or Clemson out of the Atlantic.

Bobby Petrino and new-ACC member Louisville head to Death Valley October 11.  Obviously, Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater are gone, but Petrino’s record (83-30) speaks for itself.  Still, I expect the losses of Bridgewater and seven starters on defense to be too much for the Cardinals to repeat their success from the previous two seasons (23-3).

And we cannot forget South Carolina.  I need not remind any Clemson fan that USC has won the previous five matchups in the rivalry.  The Palmetto Bowl has taken on national significance with Swinney and Steve Spurrier at the helm and the 2014 rendition is likely to feature a match-up of ranked teams the fourth consecutive year.  It’s difficult to say exactly how the early portion of Clemson’s schedule will go, but the Tigers will be a force in the second half of the year, which is bad news for the Gamecocks.

Date

Opponent

2013 Record

8/30

At Georgia

8-5

9/6

South Carolina State

9-4

9/20

At Florida State

14-0

9/27

North Carolina

7-6

10/4

NC State

3-9

10/11

Louisville

12-1

10/18

At Boston College

7-6

10/25

Syracuse

7-6

11/6

At Wake Forest (Thurs.)

4-8

11/15

At Georgia Tech

7-6

11/22

Georgia State

0-12

11/29

South Carolina

11-2