Optimism will return to Clemson football next winter either because of a successful 2003 season or a change at the helm.
Many fans will spend the summer discussing the temperature of Tommy's seat and the water level of Lake Hartwell. As Tommy made his rounds to the IPTAY meetings this spring the familiar Lake Hartwell joke had been removed from his remarks.
Many fans, including yours truly, have called for Tommy's head at times during the past year. Clemson can't afford to have a coaching change after the upcoming season with expansion on the horizon and the improvements of other ACC football programs such as Virginia, Maryland and NC State. Next year's recruiting class will be critical to the improvement of the football program over the next few years and it goes without saying that a coaching change would certainly hurt next year's recruiting efforts.
So what should the expectations be for the upcoming season and what are the chances that this year's team will meet those expectations? The bottomline is that the Tigers need to show that they are a program on the rise. In my opinion, at least eight regular season wins, including a victory over a top 20 team, are needed to convince fans and recruits that the Tigers are back. A good bowl performance is also needed to give the team momentum heading into signing day and 2004.
A quick review of the upcoming season shows that eight wins is certainly within reach. Even though it's only June 1st, it's never too early to take a look at the upcoming season.
First up, the Georgia Bulldogs.
In 2002, the Tigers beat themselves with turnovers and special team mistakes in Athens, but in 2003, a less experienced team to the valley.
The Tigers have also had a bit of offseason luck, as 17 players for the Dawgs have been suspended or declared ineligible for the season opener. Georgia also had seven talented players selected in the 2003 NFL Draft. I'll go ahead and go out on a limb and say that Clemson will take advantage of the Dawg's inexperience and win a close game in the valley.
Furman and Middle Tennessee will come at a great time for the Tigers. Coming off a big win against Georgia, the Tigers will have two games to continue to build confidence and get the younger players some much-needed playing time. These games should also be able to provide time for the young offensive line to learn to play as a unit and continue to improve.
Look for the Tigers to be 3-0 heading into Atlanta to face Georgia Tech. Tech will be battle-tested when they meet Clemson as they open the 2003 season against BYU, Auburn and FSU. The Yellow Jackets, like rival Georgia, have also lost 10 players to academics including star running back Tony Hollings, linebacker Kingi McNair and defensive end Tony Hargrove. The offensive line is the strength of the offense for Tech. The concern on offense is the receiving core with the loss of Glover and Watkins. On defense the line is the strength with the return of All American Greg Gathers. The secondary is the defensive weakness with cornerback Jonathan Cox the only returning starter.
Georgia Tech will be the first road test for Clemson in 2003, but look for the confident Tigers to have a big day through the air and enjoy a 4-0 record on the short bus ride home.
The next 3 contests will be the "swing games" for the season. A home matchup against the Cavaliers sandwiched between road games against Maryland and N.C. State will be the most difficult part of the 2003 campaign. The Tigers will get a week off before the Maryland game to recover from any injuries and rest up for the difficult stretch. The Tigers could easily lose all 3 of these games but more likely will go 1-2 or 2-1.
Maryland returns 17 starters from a team that won 10 of their final 11 games last season. The Terps will be very explosive on offense as they return QB Scott McBrien, RB Bruce Perry and a very powerful and experienced offensive line. The secondary returns intact and the return of Ambush, Joe and Cochran at LB will give Maryland one of the best trios of in the ACC. Look for the Tigers to probably suffer their first loss of the year against the Terps.
Clemson will be happy to return to the valley after road games against Tech and Maryland. Beating the up and coming Cavaliers will not be easy for the Tigers. The disappointing loss at Virginia in 2002 was the game that sent the Tiger's season heading down hill to another 7 win season. This year's game against Virginia will be just as critical. The Cavaliers will bring Matt Schaub, one of the league's best quarterbacks, and a stable of very impressive running backs to Death Valley. Look for the defensive line and the linebackers to be the strength of the defense while the secondary tries to improve after giving up 215 passing yards per game last year.
Make no mistake about it, the Tigers will need their "A-game" to beat the Cavaliers. Look for home cooking and 85,000 strong to carry Clemson to a close victory.
Tiger fans certainly remember the embarrassing 38-6 loss to State in front of a national TV audience last season. The Wolfpack will be loaded on offense as they return Rivers at QB, McLendon at RB, and a very strong offensive line. The strength of their defense is in the secondary while the defensive line is very young and inexperienced. In order to bring home a win from Raleigh the Tigers will need to get the ground game rolling to keep Phillip Rivers and company on the sideline. Look for the Tigers to give a better performance than last year but come home with their second straight road loss.
The good news is that the schedule should get much easier that. North Carolina will come to the valley just when confidence is beginning to fade. UNC will bring 3 very talented freshman wide receivers to Clemson but the key for the Heels will be to improve the running game that finished last in the league in 2002. North Carolina will also be searching to improve the defensive line and linebackers from a team that finished last in the league in overall defense. Look for the Tigers to rebuild their confidence and come away with another home victory.
Clemson will then head to Winston-Salem trying to end a 2-game road losing streak. Wake Forest did lose their impressive quarterback James MacPherson, but Cory Randolph will start in 2003 and try to execute Jim Grobe's complex, yet impressive offense.
Look for the Deacs to throw the ball more in 2003 as Randolph has a better arm than MacPherson. The offense only returns 3 starters from last year so Grobe will have his work cut out for him. The strength of the Wake defense is at linebacker while the defensive line will be trying to find a replacement for talented defensive end Calvin Pace who headed to the NFL. Look for the Tigers to have too much offense for the Deacs and end the 2-game road losing streak.
Is this the year Tommy finally beats his Dad? The Noles will return the offense to the hands of the talented but inconsistent Chris Rix. Florida State will bring one of the most talented backfields in the country to the valley. The question for the FSU offense will be the offensive line where 4 senior starters are gone. The strength of the defense is at linebacker where Kendlyll Pope and Michael Boulware return. Charlie Whitehurst will try to take advantage of a suspect secondary that gave up 235 yards per game last season. The Tigers certainly could win their first Bowden bowl but look for Florida State to find a way to continue their dominance over the Tigers.
The final home game is against the improving Duke Blue Devils. Duke will return 20 of 22 starters and look to finally win some conference games in 2003. The offense will be led by running backs Wade and Douglas. Duke will look to improve on the worst pass defense in the league that gave up 254 yards per game last season. Look for John Leake, Kevin Youngblood and the other Tiger seniors to insure that they go out winners on senior day.
That leaves only the in-state battle with the Gamecocks. South Carolina comes into 2003 without a proven quality quarterback. The Gamecocks will also be very concerned about their offensive line in 2003. Defensively the Gamecocks will be switching from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3. Perhaps the biggest loss for South Carolina is the loss of defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. The strength of the defense is the linebackers and the weakness is the defensive line. South Carolina will not be able to put enough points on the board to upset the Tigers. Look for Clemson to continue their domination of the series with the Gamecocks.
In summary there is no reason Clemson shouldn't win at least 8 games in 2003. The Tigers should be able to bank on 4 home wins against Furman, Middle Tennessee, North Carolina and Duke. Road wins against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and South Carolina are also probable. That leaves the Tigers only needing to find a way to beat Georgia, Virginia or FSU at home or steal a road victory at Maryland or NC State to win at least 8 games. The Georgia game is crucial as a victory over the Bulldogs will give the team early confidence and set the table for possibly a very big year for Clemson football.
I'll climb out on that limb and predict a 9-3 regular season for the Tigers but will be very satisfied with 8-4.
Eight is Enough
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