The Blue Devils also enter Saturday's game with a 4-5 record, but unlike their hosts, Duke fans are mostly thrilled with the season's progression. Duke has already matched their win total over the last four seasons combined and have won the most games in a season since 2003.
When Clemson Has The Ball:
The Tiger offense starts on the ground where Clemson features two of the league's top runningbacks in James Davis and C.J. Spiller - collectively referred to as "Thunder and Lightning". The nickname was obtained in 2006 when the Tigers rolled over Georgia Tech behind 216 yards and two scores from Davis and 116 yards and two more touchdowns from Spiller. Last season against the Blue Devils Spiller logged eight carries from 56 yards and an 84 yard kick return for touchdown while Davis torched Duke for 118 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries. This season the duo have been just as effective - averaging a remarkable 5.43 yards per rush so far in 2008. All told the duo has combined for 961 yards on 177 attempts with 12 rushing touchdowns.
Under center will be fifth year quarterback Cullen Harper who enters the Duke game poised to pass the 5,000 yard career passing mark. Currently he has thrown for 4,944 yards in 29 games (21 as a starter) including 1,783 passing yards this season. In Wallace Wade a year ago Harper completed 17 of 26 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns. His 10 game performance has earned him semifinal mention for the 2008 Johnny Unitas Award - presented to the nation's top senior quarterback.
Harper's top receiving targets are receivers Aaron Kelly, Jacoby Ford, and Tyler Grisham along with tight end Michael Palmer. Last year against Duke Kelly recorded six catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers. Earlier this season against Boston College, Kelly became the program's all-time leader in touchdown catches with 19. Despite the focus on the ground attack, Kelly has been a long time weapon through the air where he has recorded 28 straight games with at least one catch. With 10 more catches he will become the ACC's all-time leader for receptions. With 225 more receiving yards he will claim that career record for the program as well. Ford has been a dual threat player - as a slot receiver (39 catches for 457 yards and 2 touchdowns) and kick-returner, while Grisham has been a secondary option behind both with 28 catches for 288 yards.
As good as the skill players have been for the Tigers, the offense has struggled due to a woefully inexperienced offensive line. In nine games the Tigers have started seven different combinations in the trenches. Injuries to three starters have helped facilitate this rapid turnover including the loss of right guard Barry Humphries (seven game starter from a season ago) against Alabama. Humphries returned against Georgia Tech. Starting left tackle Chris Hairston has also missed three games with a knee injury. At times the Tigers have been forced to start three red-shirt freshmen along the line.
One place Clemson has been very good is on special teams where placekicker Mark Buchholz is 11-of-12 on filed goals and perfect on extra points. Meanwhile Spiller has averaged 28.7 yards per return on kick-offs this season - good enough to be in the top 15 in the country.
When Duke Has The Ball:
The offensive line will have its hands full again, but will need to provide quarterback Thaddeus Lewis enough time to make smart decisions. A bad pass will likely result in the Tigers capitalizing and taking possession. The take-away effort is led by senior safety Michael Hamlin who has three interceptions this year (11 for his career). Cornerbacks Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler have recored a pair of interceptions a piece. A season ago Hamlin registered 9 tackles, one interception, and one pass breakup against the Blue Devils while Chanellor added four stops and one tackle for loss.
Linebacker Kavell Conner is the team leader with 89 tackles including 3 tackles for loss and two pass breakups. He is joined by Scotty Cooper, Brandon Maye, and DeAndre McDaniel. Maye is the top freshman contributor on defense with 61 tackles and three fumble recoveries - making him one of two linebackers in the country with three recovered fumbles. Tiger fans knew they had something special in the red-shirt freshman in the first game of the season (against Alabama) when he recorded 12 tackles - the most of any freshman in the program's history.
In the trenches the Tigers lineup with defensive tackles Dorell Scott and Jarvis Jenkins on the interior and Kevin Alexander and Ricky Sapp on the outside. Also in the mix will be tackle Brandon Thompson and ends Kourtnei Brown and Da'Quan Bowers. Scott is quesitonable for the game with Duke after suffering a knee injury against Florida State last week. Bowers, another freshman and former five star prospect (and top defensive end in the nation from the class of 2008), has recorded 27 tackles this season.
Clemson punter Jimmy Maners has done his part to keep the Tiger special teams highly regarded. Currently he ranks 15th in the country with an average kick of 41.96 yards.
Despite the Tigers struggling through a disappointing season, it's hard to see Clemson overlooking the Blue Devils on Saturday. The 2008 season has taught the Tigers many tough lessons, which doesn't bode well for the Blue Devils. For Duke to have a chance the front seven is going to need a superb effort in order to break down an inexperienced Tiger offensive line and then put put pressure on Harper, while hoping to hit and wrap up either Davis or Spiller. Mental mistakes and little mishaps by the Blue Devils will turn into big gains and points on the board for the talented Tiger skill players if Duke isn't careful. Despite their record the Tigers still have one of the most talented rosters (if not the most) in the conference and Duke will struggle to match up man for man. The Blue Devils will most likely play better than they did a week ago against NC State, but it won't be enough.
Predicted Final Score:
Duke - 10
Clemson - 34