The Final Breakdown

CLEMSON - Hale McGranahan previews Saturday's 2010 season opener against North Texas.

WHAT: Clemson vs. North Texas
WHERE: Clemson Memorial Stadium (81,500) - Clemson, S.C.
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 4 (3:30 p.m.)
SPREAD: Clemson favored by 24
TV: ESPNU

Clemson, of course, opens the 2010 season after finishing 9-5 in 2009. The Tigers won the ACC Atlantic Division for the first time in school history and won the Music City Bowl.

And now Dabo Swinney's second full season as Clemson head coach opens on Saturday at 3:30 with North Texas in the first-ever meeting between the Tigers and Mean Green.

Meanwhile North Texas head coach Todd Dodge is 5-31 during his tenure, including a 2-10 finish last season.

Dodge hired former South Florida offensive coordinator Mike Canales to take over as North Texas' offensive coordinator in 2010. Dodge, a former Texas high school coaching legend, spent his first three seasons in Denton as offensive coordinator.

Clemson has won 20 of the last 26 season openers, including last year's opponent Middle Tennessee, also from the Sun Belt.

The Tigers have 51 returning lettermen, including 15 starters from last year's team, which finished in the AP top-25.

Here's a look at what to expect Saturday as the Tigers take to the field against the Mean Green:

NORTH TEXAS GROUND GAME VS. CLEMSON FRONT
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said earlier this week that he'd be shocked if he didn't see steady dose of North Texas' version of the wildcat.

For one, Canales and Dodge both employ the zone read in their respective offensive philosophies. Plus, there are still questions in regards to Clemson's ability to slow the zone read/wildcat/running quarterback. Each of those three took a bite out of the Tigers a several times last season (see Georgia Tech—twice, TCU, Virginia, South Carolina).


North Texas running back Lance Dunbar rushed for 1,378 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2009. (Getty Images)
North Texas running back Lance Dunbar rushed for 1,378 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2009. He could spend a lot of time in the backfield alongside wide receiver Riley Dodge—the coach's son. Look for plenty of zone read out of the wildcat with Dodge, a former quarterback. He rushed for 463 yards as a quarterback last season. Dodge was also second on the team with five rushing touchdowns.

They'll be running behind an offensive line that returns four starters, including right tackle Esteban Santiago, a preseason All-Sun Belt pick. North Texas' offensive line paved the way for the nation's 28th best rushing offense with an average of 185.3 yards a game last season.

Clemson's defensive line remains relatively intact from a year ago. The Tigers return three starters and have experience up and down the two-deep depth chart. Defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins and defensive end Da'Quan Bowers are listed on the Bronko Nagurski Watch List. They tied for second on the team last season with 11 tackles for loss.

Defensive end Andre Branch is poised for a breakout 2010 after picking up 12th Man Award honors from the Clemson coaching staff in 2009. He averaged a tackle every 7.49 plays last season, which is third among returning players.

Serious questions arise with the youth movement at linebacker. And the Clemson coaches don't dispute it. Sophomore middle linebacker Corico Hawkins has the most career snaps of the three starters (119). Redshirt sophomore weak-side linebacker Jonathan Willard played 32 and redshirt freshman Quandon Christian has yet to play a down.

The outside linebackers got a lot younger when redshirt junior Brandon Maye went down with a knee injury earlier this week. He's expected to return, unlike senior Scotty Cooper, who won't play during his final season of eligibility because of a neck injury.

Some of those linebacking questions will be masked since the Tigers are likely to run out mostly nickel and dime personnel to match the multiple wide receiver sets. That would bring safeties DeAndre McDaniel and Marcus Gilchrist in closer to the box. They played the most snaps for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele a season ago and both had over 100 tackles.

Clemson's a 24-point favorite at home and it's the season opener. North Texas' rushing opportunities could be cut down because the Mean Green will likely be playing catch up most of the game. The quicker the Tigers can build a sizeable lead, the sooner Canales will be forced to go to the air.

ADVANTAGE:

CLEMSON PASSING GAME VS. NORTH TEXAS SECONDARY, PASS RUSH
The bulk of Kyle Parker's 205 completions from last season have graduated and moved on to the NFL. C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford and Michael Palmer accounted for 135 of last season's receptions.

Consistent threats need to emerge at wide receiver and the wide-open competition will carry-over into Death Valley Saturday. Wide receivers coach Jeff Scott plans to use eight receivers, including Xavier Dye, the top returning pass catcher (14 catches, 236 yards and three touchdowns).


Even with the questions at wide receiver, the advantage still lies with Clemson and its combination of Kyle Parker and tight end Dwayne Allen. (Getty Images)
Dye is listed as the co-starter at the ‘X' position with Brandon Clear with DeAndre Hopkins also in the mix. Terrance Ashe is listed as the co-starter at ‘Z' with Jaron Brown. Marquan Jones is listed as the starter above Bryce McNeal at ‘A'. Jones is a potential big-play threat who led the Tigers in 2009 with 19.6 yards per reception.

Even with the questions at wide receiver, the advantage still lies with Clemson and its combination of Parker and tight end Dwayne Allen. Parker should have good enough protection to allow him to pick out receivers down field.

North Texas' pass rush was fourth-worst in the country last season with just one sack a game. Defensive end Brandon Akpunku, who led the team with six, is back at one of the defensive end spots.

Clemson's pass protection was among the nation's strongest last season. The Tigers offensive line gave up an average of 1.36 sacks a game, which ranked 31st in the nation and six players with starting experience return to the front.

Look for Parker to put together an efficient afternoon with check downs to running backs while mixing in a big play or two to Allen. Running backs, Jamie Harper, Andre Ellington and Roderick McDowell won't be bad options for targets. Harper ‘s hands are considered to be among the top-three best on the team.

Parker is back for what's likely to be his final season of football at Clemson. He threw for 2,526 yards and 20 touchdowns last year—both school records for a freshman. Parker also set a school record for wins in a season with nine.

The secondary was the stronger half of the North Texas defense in 2009 and three starters are back for this season. The Mean Green ranked 54th in pass defense (216.7 yards a game) and 74th in pass efficiency.

Royce Hill led North Texas with three interceptions last year, nearly half of the team's total of seven. Ira Smith and DaWaylon Cook are back to manning the starting safety duties. Junior transfer Steven Ford is listed as the other starting cornerback. He had three interceptions at Fort Scott Community College in 2009.

ADVANTAGE:

CLEMSON GROUND GAME VS. NORTH TEXAS FRONT
Fans of the HBO series Hard Knocks heard earlier this week that New York Jets coach Rex Ryan favors the "ground and pound" philosophy which took his team within a game of the Super Bowl last season.

Sure, the talk around the Clemson offense has been about balance. The Tigers ran over 100 more times than threw en route to the ACC Championship. More balance might improve the 9-5 record. But there's no mistaking it, this is a ground and pound team.


Running backs Jamie Harper (pictured above) and Andre Ellington are primed for huge seasons after combining for over 900 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009. (Getty Images)
Running backs Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington are primed for huge seasons after combining for over 900 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009. Their combined carries (148) didn't match C.J. Spiller's 216, but both should eclipse 100 individual carries and each could come within shouting distance of Spiller's total of 216.

And why not run it behind fullback Chad Diehl? The guy's made a name for himself by delivering bone crunching blocks out of the Clemson backfield.

If he takes the ground and pound route, Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier would have his way against a porous North Texas front that was 104th in the country last season against the run.

Some would argue that it may not necessarily be a good thing that North Texas returns the majority of its front seven from 2009. There is talent, though. Akpunku was named preseason All-Sun Belt with linebacker Craig Robertson, who led the team last season with 107 tackles.

Over the course of the game, Clemson's size on the offensive line will weigh on the North Texas front four, which features a pair of 240-pound ends. Backup defensive tackle Tevinn Cantly is questionable because of a knee injury. He's one of three, 300-plus pounders on the Mean Green's front. Four of the Tigers' five starters along the offensive line are listed above 300.

ADVANTAGE:

NORTH TEXAS PASSING GAME VS. CLEMSON SECONDARY, PASS RUSH
The strength of Clemson's defense in 2009 was its secondary and it's shaping up to remain that way in 2010. Other than three-year starting cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor, the unit returns the bulk of its players—including Gilchrist and McDaniel.

Gilchrist, who started at safety and played nickel back last season, will start at corner this season. Byron Maxwell, the other starter at cornerback, is considerably bigger and stronger than Butler and Chancellor. The third corner, Xavier Brewer, who Steele's compared to Gilchrist, is in line to be the next big-time defensive back in line at Clemson.


Marcus Gilchrist, who started at safety and played nickel back last season, will start at corner this season. (Roy Philpott)
For the fifth-straight year, North Texas opens the football season with a new starting quarterback. Nathan Tune played seven games in 2009 and threw for 646 yards and five touchdowns to go along with a 65.5 completion percentage.

The top three Mean Green wide receivers from 2009 are back, too. Jamaal Jackson, Darius Carey and Michael Outlaw combined for 169 receptions for 1,600 yards and 8 touchdowns.

North Texas' offensive line did well keeping quarterbacks on their feet a season ago, allowing an average of just one sack per game, which ranked 10th best in the country.

Clemson's sack leader in 2009, Ricky Sapp, has moved on to the NFL. Corico Hawkins and Malliciah Goodman both picked up a pair as freshman while Da'Quan Bowers returns with three.

Although the matchup appears to be decent enough on paper, there's little debate that Clemson has better athletes coming off the edge and roaming the secondary. The Tigers safeties, McDaniel and Rashard Hall, combined for 14 interceptions last season. There aren't many safety duos in the country that compare to those two.

ADVANTAGE:

CLEMSON SPECIAL TEAMS VS. NORTH TEXAS SPECIAL TEAMS
Both teams will run out place kickers that have never attempted a field goal or extra-point in their college careers. Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro will be walking out onto friendly ground and North Texas kicker Zach Olen won't be.

The Tigers did lose a ton of explosiveness in the return game with the departures of Ford and Spiller. Gilchrist will be asked to step up and provide that spark. It's almost unreasonable to ask someone to be a Spiller or Ford in the return game, but if there was anyone that you could ask, Gilchrist would be the guy.

Jackson and Hill both averaged over 25 yards per kick return last season—averages that were actually higher than Ford's.

Clemson doesn't hold back its best players from special teams. Combine that with the first-year kicker walking into Death Valley and it spells disaster for North Texas.

ADVANTAGE:

PREDICTION: Clemson 41 North Texas 14


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