It won't be easy, but Clemson's front four needs to get consistent pressure on Tide QB John Parker Wilson Saturday night in the Georgia Dome. Sure, the Tigers have one of the top defensive lines in the ACC, but those linemen will have to get around 6-4, 348 pound LT Andre Smith, as well as team captain C Andre Caldwell and two other returning starters from a year ago in RG Marlon Davis and former RT Mike Johnson. Those four linemen have a combined 86 starts in their career and were partly responsible for only giving up 25 sacks in 2007. Making matters more complicated is the fact that Alabama's new offense, which is now under the direction of former Fresno State coordinator Jim McElwain, will likely be looking to get rid of the ball early with bubble screens and quick patterns to the wide receivers. Bandit end Ricky Sapp was a five-star defensive end coming out of Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School and so was Da'Quan Bowers. Let's see what this tag-team duo, as well as Kevin Alexander can do against Alabama's offensive line.
#4. TACKLE TERRY
When freshman running back Terry Grant went over 100 yards last season, Alabama didn't lose a game, and that included wins over No. 16 Arkansas and No. 21 Tennessee. When he didn't go over the century mark, Alabama was just 2-5, including losses at Mississippi State, Florida State and at home to Louisiana-Monroe. With most of last year's key wide receivers gone, Grant figures to be an early focal point of the Crimson Tide offense, and a big time key for the Clemson defense. If the Tigers can limit his production and force Alabama to the air- one of the nation's top pass defenses awaits.
Clemson returns more weapons on offense in 2008 than any other season in school history so it seems natural to spread the ball around ... especially early. However, it's also important to find who has the "hot hand" and continue to feed that player the football until he inflicts enough damage to lift Clemson to the win. Will it be a more aggressive C.J. Spiller? What about Aaron Kelly and his 6-6 frame deep downfield? Or will it be the always dependable James Davis carving out five and six-yard carries in a drive that eats up the clock? Or perhaps it's Cullen Harper distributing the ball to all parts of the field. Find what works and stick with it. Alabama's defense was good last year, but not great, ranking 31st in the nation in total defense and 27th in scoring defense.
#2. AVOID THE SPECIAL TEAMS MELTDOWN
It can be painful to remember, but special teams have cost the Tigers a chance to play for an ACC Championship in each of the last two seasons. Last year, it was four missed field goals, a blocked punt and a fumbled punt return in a 13-3 loss at Georgia Tech. Two years ago it was a blocked extra point and a kickoff return for a touchdown given up at Boston College. In a big game like this, the Tigers can't lay an egg on special teams and expect to win. That means Buchholz has to be perfect from inside of 42 yards, no blocked punts or turnovers by the punt team and strong coverage in all kicking situations.
#1. WEATHER THE STORM UP FRONT
There's a tropical storm dropping rain by the buckets across the southeast, but there will be a different kind storm in the Georgia Dome come Saturday night- Alabama's front seven. It's been talked about for months now, but the fact remains Clemson's offensive line will be breaking in four new starters in this game. The biggest key in beating 'Bama will be to weather the storm created by Nick Saban and his front seven. Make no mistake, Alabama's second-year head coach will do whatever he can to create confusion among Clemson's inexperienced line, including last-second shifts, stunts and blitzes. The first half could see a fair share of confusion, but it will be how Clemson's line adjusts as the game goes on that will dictate who actually wins.