#11. VIRGINIA: Clemson squeaked out a 13-3 road win last year in a physical game that kept the Tigers' bowl hopes alive but this year promises to be much different. By the time these two teams square off in late November, Al Groh will likely already know this will be his last year in Charlottesville as his team emotionally checks out of the season. The Cavaliers lack the firepower on offense and simply aren't the same team that reached the Gator Bowl two seasons ago. 11 starters return (5 - offense, 6- defense) in 2009, but again, by mid-November this team will have packed it in.
#10. MIDDLE TENNESSEE: It was just one year ago the Blue Raiders upset Maryland, the same team that accelerated the resignation of Tommy Bowden by rallying from a 17-6 halftime deficit to beat the Tigers 20-17 in Clemson. While the Tigers will be heavy favorites for their 2009 season opener, expect Middle Tennessee to hang tough for a half- and that's more than Virginia will do later in the season. 16 starters return for longtime Clemson assistant and now Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill, including 10 on offense.
#9. BOSTON COLLEGE: If you are looking for a team to take a major nose dive in the Atlantic Division rankings this year, look no further than the Eagles from Chestnut Hill, Mass. While seven starters return on both sides of the ball, the firepower is gone. No more Matt Ryan. No more Andre Callendar. Brian Toal, B.J. Raji and Ron Brace are all gone as well. Even head coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who claimed two Atlantic Division Championships during his two years with the Eagles, is also gone. Clemson ended its yearly jinx against Boston College by defeating the eventual Atlantic Division champs last season on the road and now this year the Tigers get the Eagles at home. The fact this one is at home puts it before Maryland in our rankings.
#8. AT MARYLAND: The road team has won the past four games in this series, including the Terps' surprise come-from-behind win inside Death Valley a year ago. This year Maryland returns senior quarterback Chris Turner but just nine starters return overall- which is the lowest number in the ACC. Can you say, "revenge?"
Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe defeated Tommy Bowden's Tigers last year 12-7 in Bowden's last game as Clemson's head coach.
#6. AT SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks lost their leading receiver in school history, one of the best tight ends in the country and a handful of playmakers on defense ... and now they are supposed to be better in 2009? I don't think so. Until South Carolina proves it on the field, don't believe the hype ... especially when it comes to playing the Tigers. Sure, its' a rivalry game and South Carolina has played the Tigers extremely close under Spurrier in Williams-Brice, but that's only good enough of a reason to land the Gamecocks in the middle of the pack when ranking Clemson's toughest games.
#5. AT MIAMI: Predicting how good or bad the Hurricanes will be by the time the Tigers travel to Land Shark Stadium (that's right - Land Shark Stadium) is difficult to do when you consider the brutal start to their schedule. Miami opens its season on Labor Day night at Florida State before traveling to Georgia Tech for a Thursday night tilt, followed by another road trip to Virginia Tech before hosting National Championship contender Oklahoma. The atmosphere will surely be lacking but Miami has enough talent to win the Coastal Division if it can avoid self destruction early on. Simply put, 15 starters return this season for a program that is hoping Randy Shannon (12-13) isn't as bad as he appears to be through his first two seasons as a head coach.
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is 1-3 against arch rival Clemson since arriving in Columbia before the 2005 season.
#3. TCU: The Horned Frogs from Ft. Worth could be the best team the Tigers see all season. Fortunately, they get to see them up close and personal in the friendly confines of Death Valley. TCU featured the No. 1 defense in the nation a year ago (giving up just 217 yards per game) but was also formidable offensively, setting school records for total offense and point scored. While just four starters return from that defense, the Horned Frogs will be bolstered by a couple of junior college transfers and had some fairly good talent sitting on the bench last year as well- so there won't be much of a drop off. Overall, this team isn't as talented as Florida State, but its better-coached.
Florida State certainly appears to be on its way "back" but the 'Noles have struggled mightily in their last three trips to Death Valley, losing by an average score of 28-14 in all three contests.
#1. AT GEORGIA TECH: It's not so much the Yellow Jackets are the most talented team the Tigers will face in 2009, but the fact the game is being played on the road, on a Thursday night, in the second game of the season against Georgia Tech's wackadoo offense makes this one a tough draw. Also, remember Clemson has struggled mightily at Bobby Dodd Stadium in recent years, failing to score a touchdown (at least one that counted) since 2003. For whatever reason, Georgia Tech has had the Tigers' number- especially outside of Death Valley. A win here sends expectations for 2009 through the roof while a loss isn't necessarily the end of the orange and white world. By the way- 18 starters are back for Paul Johnson's crew this season and when Clemson finally scores a touchdown this season, don't you just have the feeling there will be a couple of yellow flags to wipe it off the board?