5 Most Dangerous Games on Clemson's Schedule

CLEMSON, SC - Clemson will likely be favored in every regular season game this season—both home and away. In fact, some pundits are projecting Clemson to play Ohio State in the Orange Bowl for the College Football Playoff, and Las Vegas currently has Clemson as a favorite in every game. With that in mind, here's a look at what I consider to be the five most dangerous games on Clemson's 2015 slate.

5) Notre Dame (home) October 3rd; Preseason rank: 11

The last time the Irish came to Death Valley, their quarterback was named Joe Montana. #15 Clemson held a 10-point 4th quarter lead, but Montana—as he would make a habit of doing—rallied Notre Dame for a 21-17 victory. The Irish went on to demolish Texas and Heisman winner Earl Campbell in the Cotton Bowl 38-10 and claimed the national title that year. Montana’s counterpart in the Clemson game was Steve Fuller, whose #4 jersey was retired at Clemson and temporarily brought out of retirement for the benefit of Clemson’s current QB and Heisman candidate, Deshaun Watson. Both Montana and Fuller went on to play for NFL teams that won super bowls.

Notre Dame is ranked one spot above Clemson in the preseason coaches’ poll and coming off a dramatic, last-second FG win over LSU in its bowl game. However, the Irish lost its last 4 games of the regular season and 5 out of the last 6, including blowout losses to Arizona State and USC. With QB Everett Golson transferring to FSU, Malik Zaire is the unquestioned starter this season. Zaire made headlines a couple weeks ago when he shrugged off the idea of playing Clemson in Death Valley.

“We’re going to Clemson this year. So?” Zaire said to ND Insider. “We could play you on the moon, and it wouldn’t matter. Your team is just not better than my team. I have faith in myself, and I have faith in my guys.”

In 2014, he had 21 completions out of 35 attempts for 266 yards and a touchdown. In the 2014 Music City Bowl 31-28 victory against LSU, Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and had 22 carries for 96 yards and a rushing touchdown. He is a dual-threat QB who could make things difficult for Clemson’s defense by keeping plays alive with his feet.

Notre Dame returns 9 starters on offense and 9 on defense. They recently lost starting DT Jarron Jones to a season-ending knee injury. With Zaire at QB and so much experience on both sides of the ball, many are expecting the Irish to make a run at the CFP. However, they could already have a loss on their schedule before they come to Clemson. They will host Georgia Tech on September 19th—the same weekend Clemson plays at Louisville. While the Notre Dame game will be a difficult challenge, the friendly confines of Death Valley and Clemson’s high-powered offense should be enough to see the Tigers through.

4) FSU (home) November 7th; Preseason rank: 8

Everyone knows about Florida State’s losses on both sides of the ball—they are significant. However, the Seminoles still have an abundance of talent waiting in the wings and will have former Notre Dame QB Everett Golson—who I think will win the starting job. One of the top high school athletes in the nation, George Campbell, will also join FSU this season. They also return the best kicker in the nation for two years running, so if it’s a close game in the 4th quarter the Noles have a big advantage with the automatic Roberto Aguayo. Those considerations notwithstanding, Golson was very inconsistent last season for Notre Dame after having to sit out the 2013 season due to academic fraud—so much so that Malik Zaire took over the starting spot at the end of the season. The QB position will be the key to Florida State’s season and remains a big question mark. Even if Golson should play well, I like the Tigers’ chances to outscore FSU with the home crowd behind them. Clemson turns the rivalry around this season and ends Florida State’s 3-year winning streak in the series.

3) Georgia Tech (home) October 10th; Preseason rank: 17

No doubt about it: Georgia Tech has been a thorn in Clemson’s side over the years. Even when Clemson’s defense has a bead on Paul Johnson’s unique triple-option offense, such as last season, the Yellow Jackets seem to always get the lucky breaks in the rivalry—such as Deshaun Watson tearing his ACL just before getting ready to score on the opening drive last season. There have been numerous other lucky breaks going Georgia Tech’s way over the years—but most of them have come in Atlanta. The Tigers have beaten Georgia Tech fairly comfortably in the last couple of meetings at Death Valley, so Clemson fans should be able to breathe a little easier about this matchup.

That said, Georgia Tech will still be a formidable opponent. They return a lot of talent from last year’s Coastal Championship team, including QB Justin Thomas, who is the most well-equipped QB Paul Johnson has had for his offense at Georgia Tech. They were one of the hottest teams in the nation over the latter half of last season—winning their final five games of the regular season, including Georgia in Athens, and barely losing to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game, 37-35. Of course, one of those wins came at Clemson’s expense, and we all know that game would have been different if not for Deshaun Watson tearing his ACL in the first quarter. The Jackets ended their season on a high note, beating Mississippi State from the “mighty” SEC West, 49-34 in a game that was never really close.

Clemson will be coming off a mentally and physically tough game against Notre Dame the prior week, so that could play a part in the Tigers’ readiness to play Tech. Moreover, many of Clemson’s young defenders will be seeing Georgia Tech’s offense for the first time, which is always a challenge. Fortunately, Venables has seen it for 3 years now, so hopefully he will have the defense as well-prepared as they were last season in Atlanta. Actually, the defense seemed to be able to shut down Tech whenever it wanted to in 2013 as well—forcing three-and-outs over and over in the first half. It wasn’t until Clemson opened up a huge lead that the defense allowed a few scores. I expect the Yellow Jackets to score some points in this game, but once again I think the crowd will be a factor and Clemson will emerge victorious.

2) South Carolina (away) November 28th; Preseason rank: NR

On paper, this game should probably be even more lopsided in Clemson’s favor as last year’s contest. The gamecocks are rebuilding at the quarterback, running back and offensive line positions, and they simply don’t have the dominant athletes on defense that they had for their unprecedented run of 10-win seasons. Their best player is probably WR Pharoh Cooper, but I expect Clemson’s deep and talented secondary to be able to limit his big plays. Lorenzo Nunez is a talented dual-threat quarterback, but he is only a freshman, and this will be his first taste of this huge rivalry.

Again, on paper Clemson should cruise in this matchup. However, you never know when the “X factor” of a bitter rivalry is going to rear its head. If Nunez plays out of his mind and the Gamecocks get a couple breaks to go their way early, the crowd and momentum could be a factor. Clemson needs to put this one to bed early, ala 2003.

1) Louisville (away) September 17th; Preseason rank: NR

As with the South Carolina game, Clemson has more talent in this matchup. However, the timing and venue of the Louisville game make it the most dangerous game on the regular season schedule in my opinion. The contest comes in only the third week of the season, and Clemson has a lot of inexperience on defense. That inexperience will be tested by offensive guru Bobby Petrino. The game is on Thursday night, so Clemson will be playing on short rest. I expect Clemson’s defese to improve as the season goes on, under the watchful eye of Brent Venables, but in this early-season game, Louisville might catch Clemson when its defense is still vulnerable and exploit its inexperience. Thursday night games are also notoriously advantageous for the home team, which wins the vast majority of them. In fact, Louisville led #1 Florida State for most of the game last year in another Thursday night matchup at Papa John’s Stadium, and the Seminoles were very fortunate to escape unbeaten.

The Cardinals return 5 starters on offense, led by WR James Quick, and 6 starters on defense. They lost first-round draft pick WR DeVante Parker and RB Michael Dyer on offense. On defense, they lost draft picks Holliman and Mauldin. They are still trying to figure out who their starting QB will be, so that is good news for the Tigers. At RB, Brandon Radcliff averaged 97 yards over his final three games last season against Notre Dame, Kentucky and Georgia.

On paper, Clemson wins this game going away. However—as with the South Carolina game—the Tigers need to jump on top early and never look back. If Louisville gets some breaks early and the crowd and players start to believe they can win, it could be a long night for Clemson’s young defense. It will be the first big game of the season for the Tigers, but Louisville opens the season against Auburn, so they will have been battle-tested when Clemson comes calling. If the Tigers can get past this early test unscathed, it could be a spring board toward a run at the College Football Playoff.

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