As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
#23 USC Trojans
#22 Miami Hurricanes
#21 Ole Miss Rebels
#20 Boise State Broncos
#19 Wisconsin Badgers
#18 Oklahoma Sooners
#17 Florida State Seminoles
#16 Northwestern Wildcats
#15 Oklahoma State Cowboys
#14 Louisville Cardinals
#13 Florida Gators
#12 TCU Horned Frogs
#11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
#10 LSU Tigers
Coming in at #9
2012 Record: 11-2
Conference Finish: Tied 1st in ACC Atlantic (Lost Tiebreaker to Florida State)
Bowl: Won Chick Fil A Bowl 25-24 over LSU
2013 Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
For all of the wins in the regular season in 2012, the Clemson Tigers really didn’t prove anything until the Chick Fil A bowl. Despite 10 wins at the time, the best win all regular season was your choice of nine-win Ball State from the MAC, a mediocre 7-5 NC State team or an underachieving 6-6 Virginia Tech team. The Chick Fil A Bowl win not only gave Clemson a signature win it was lacking as well as a win over an elite SEC team, but it sent the Tigers into 2013 on a high note and expecting more of the same this season. Tajh Boyd’s decision to return for his senior season is essentially the difference in being the ACC favorite and a seven win team as Boyd enters 2013 as one of the elite quarterbacks in the country. Boyd’s abilities to make plays with his arm and legs along with playing in one of the most potent offenses in all of college football should lead to another monster statistical season (as well as a number of career passing records at the school) and put him right near the top of the Heisman discussion starting in week one.
The first significant question that must be answered in 2013 is the running back position. Andre Ellington may have had his injury issues the past couple seasons but he was Clemson’s only premier back a season ago and his absence leaves Boyd as the most productive “runner” from the 2012 squad. Boyd’s size again makes him a viable option to keep the ball in the red zone but finding a replacement for Ellington in the other 80 yards of the field is what must come to fruition. Roderick McDowell enters the spring as the lead back after 83 carries for 450 yards and five scores a season ago with D.J Howard and Zac Brooks also in the mix. None appear ready or capable of becoming a prominent feature back though the pressure the pass game puts on opposing defenses could help any guy who gets the lead call. A couple four-star recruits Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman also come in. The spring game didn’t feature much from any of the returning backs but very little is ever learned from those games. I imagine come regular season you’ll see more of a committee than has been the case the past two years.
One of the quieter stories that hasn’t been talked about as much is Sammy Watkins at wide receiver. Despite missing two games and still having decent numbers a year ago, reality is it was a cliff fall from where he was in 2011. The early departure of Deandre Hopkins after a monster season a year ago means pressure is on Watkins to return to his nationally elite level on a team that otherwise loses much of its top production. In all, four of the team’s top seven receivers from last year are gone and the second most productive receiver (Adam Humphries) returning doesn’t have the upside to become what the Hopkins-Watkins tandem was. Eyes now turn to Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant, two juniors who were highly touted coming in but whether due to playing time, opportunities or underachievement haven’t flashed the brilliance they were touted to bring. 2013 is the chance for that to happen and the Tigers will be counting on those two specifically to step up. Brandon Ford stepped in last year for Dwayne Allen and had a big season at the TE spot. Sam Cooper, Jordan Leggett and Stanton Seckinger all figure to factor in and become key targets in the red zone.
The offensive line is expected to be a strength for the Tigers in 2013 and Chad Morris has made even more progress in speeding up the offense and claims to have shortened the play calls in order to kick the offense into an even higher speed than the one that was worn down opponents the past couple seasons. We know what the offense is going to likely be, that hasn’t been the issue for years. The only question is can it possibly be the best Chad Morris offense yet?
Clemson’s defense which reared its ugly head in a historically bad 2011-2012 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia wasn’t very impressive in 2012 either. Yet despite its woes, one thing that stood out more than anything with Clemson was its defense against big plays. It was nearly a weekly epidemic that the Tigers gave up big plays both through the air and on the ground and is for my money the biggest fix needed for this group in 2013. North Carolina State hit the Tigers on the same down field pass play multiple times for scores, South Carolina converted a third and forever late in the game on a QB scramble and Florida State flat out ran it down the Tigers’ throats. These are just some of the examples of the home run plays that handicapped Clemson in 2013.
The defensive line is a unit that only put two players in the top ten on the team in tackles last season and loses its best pass rusher Malliciah Goodman to graduation. The defense showed improvements in the team’s recent spring scrimmage but as a whole last season did not get after the quarterback well enough, a noteworthy development considering how much they got after Mettenberger in the Chick Fil A Bowl win. Corey Crawford, Josh Watson, D.J Reader Vic Beasley, and Grady Jarrett are immediately some of the names that pop up when discussing this season’s unit and will be expected to become more productive at generating pressure and tackling than last season’s unit was. With the changes in the secondary, the front seven as a whole will be the guys leaned on most of the year as the most experienced.
The linebackers often times last season were criticized for the routes they took to the ball carrier and their lack of presence in pass defense. With that said, this is the unit with some of Swinney’s most highly recruited defensive prospects the past couple seasons in Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony. Add in the emergence of Spencer Shuey in 2012 who didn’t start the year in high regards and Ben Boulware’s signing this offseason and the Tigers linebackers will have the fanbases’ and coaches’ eyes on them to be perhaps the backbone of the Tigers defense. Much like Peake and Bryant, Anthony and Steward came to Clemson as elite prospects touted for their ability to make a major impact on a defense and at this point Tigers fans are waiting to see that potential come out.
The secondary took the biggest hit this offseason with three key contributors departing in Rashard Hall, Xavier Brewer and Jonathan Meeks, leaving an already shaky secondary with holes to plug when this season starts. Travis Blanks, a linebacker recruit turned defensive back comes back after leading the team with eight passes defended a season ago though the three departures were the only players on the team with multiple interceptions. Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson are back at cornerback but for the most part the Tigers are breaking in a number of players to fill roles who didn’t have much of a factor defensively in 2012. This unit will certainly be the biggest challenge facing Brent Venables going into next year.
All in all the amazing thing is if you look at Clemson’s defensive ranks nationally, while none are elite, there’s a number of areas (tackle for loss, red zone defense, turnovers forced) where the Tigers have respectable figures. In fact passing efficiency defense is the one spot that paints a picture of the woes this side of the ball had in 2012. However, Clemson’s defense is a classic case of numbers not telling the entire story. This was a defense that benefited from an offense that won them a lot of games and made the opposition pretty one dimensional for portions of the game. In fact, before the LSU game there were very few instances where the offense needed the defense to make plays and they did. If the defense gave the offense much of any help in Tallahassee last season there is a good chance the Tigers would’ve repeated as ACC champs. This year is a chance for redemption and if Clemson has bigger hopes than just an ACC title, the defense must be much better.
Home vs Georgia. Home vs Florida State. At South Carolina. Those three games will tell the story of the 2013 Clemson regular season when the year comes to an end. As a whole Clemson is simply on a different level from every other ACC opponent this year not named Florida State. If I were to look at a game that could be a trap it’d be the road game at Syracuse against an unfamiliar opponent and one who beat Louisville at home a year ago. Nonetheless the Orangemen face some significant personnel losses which makes an upset still pretty unlikely. A loss in any of the three likely removes Clemson from national championship contention as I’m of the belief no one-loss ACC team will play for a BCS title this season due to the lack of respect for the conference. Georgia in the opener will show how far this defense has come in the offseason and what the potential for the team is. The Florida State game is a game that likely determines the ACC Atlantic Champion and in Death Valley, where FSU hasn’t won in a decade, Clemson has to like its odds. Of course the game 99% of Clemson fans will circle (I’m in the 1% that thinks winning the FSU game is more important), is the game in Columbia to end the season. The Gamecocks own a four game win streak over Clemson and if this season follows last year’s script, should the Tigers somehow lose their division, that game could be for a potential BCS berth if the Tigers are 10-1 again. It’s not the most difficult schedule in the world and with Boyd set to graduate and Watkins a serious candidate to leave after this year, Clemson’s best shot at a national title for a couple years might be this season.
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