ACC Preview: Clemson

Ninth-year head coach Tommy Bowden has a veteran staff and talent at the skill positions, but questions in some critical spots will determine just how good the Tigers will be in 2007.

2007 ACC Media Preseason Poll – 3rd in the Atlantic Division

Inside Carolina's Vote – 4th in the Atlantic Division

2006 record (8-5, 5-3 ACC)

Heading into the 2006 season, Bowden had seemingly become a pro at late season heroics to save his job at Clemson. The Tigers began the 2003 season 5-4, before a 26-10 victory over FSU and a 63-17 trouncing of South Carolina in Columbia provided a little breathing room. In 2004, Clemson started 1-4 and needed an upset of Miami in Coral Gables to finish 6-5. The 2005 campaign played out in similar fashion, as the Tigers went 4-4 through October before closing with a four-game winning streak. Last season was a different matter, though, as Bowden was finally able to get off to a strong 7-1 start before the bottom fell out. The Tigers failed to show up for a Thursday night defeat at Virginia Tech, and struggled down the stretch, losing four of their final five games. Bowden has consistently recruited well, but at some point his program is going to have show consistency on the field in order to silence the ever-restless fan base.

Offense: The offensive line was dominant last season, as the Tigers ranked 5th nationally in rushing yardage (217.9 ypg) and 6th nationally in sacks allowed (1.15). Junior TB James Davis (368 car, 1,187 yds, 17 tds) and sophomore TB C.J. Spiller (129 car, 938 yds, 10 tds) form a dynamic rushing attack, but the offensive line will be a shell of the '06 version. Only senior LT Barry Richardson [pictured, right] returns as a starter, although senior LG Chris McDuffie worked his way into the lineup late in the season. Third-year offensive coordinator Rob Spence will rely heavily on his ground game, as the QB position is up in the air heading into fall camp. Junior Cullen Harper (155 yds, 2 tds) looks to be currently in the driver's seat, but our bet is that true frosh Willy Korn (No. 8-ranked QB in 2007 class) steps into the starter position by mid-season. The Tigers need junior WR Aaron Kelly (30 rec, 355 yds, 3 tds) and sophomore speedster Jacoby Ford (15 rec, 187 yds, 2 tds) to step up big for the new QB.

Defense: Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning returns a strong front seven from 2006's solid defense (13th in total defense). Returning starters on the line include juniors Philip Merling (46 tkl, 7 tfl), Dorell Scott (54 tkl, 3 sacks) and Rashaad Jackson (26 tkl, 1 tfl). Sophomore Ricky Sapp (20 tkl, 4 sacks) has the tough job of replacing NFL first-round pick Gaines Adams (62 tkl, 12.5 sacks), but his speed and athleticism should prove beneficial. The LB corps suffered through numerous injuries last season, but essentially returns three starters in seniors Nick Watkins (116 tkl, 6 tfl), Tramaine Billie (93 tkl, 5.5 tfl in '05) and junior Antonio Clay (95 tkl, 8 tfl). Junior safeties Chris Clemons (102 tkl, 8 pbu) and Michael Hamlin (64 tkl, 5 tfl) anchor the defensive backfield as returning starters. Koenning's zone scheme should help shelter sophomores Crezdon Butler (34 tkl), Chris Chancellor (38 tkl) and true frosh Marcus Gilchrist at the corner spots.

Special Teams: Bowden's special teams unit has been a relative strength the past several years, but the staff must count on new faces at both punter and placekicker. Junior Jimmy Maners will attempt to replace Cole Chason, and redshirt freshman Richard Jackson will step into Jad Dean's shoes. Ford is back to return both punts (11.1 avg yds, 1 td) and kicks (32.8 avg yds, 1 td).

Schedule: This is as favorable as Bowden and Co. could hope for in the new ACC. Their Coastal opponents include tough games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, but the Tigers will be heavily favored on the road at Duke. Division rivals Wake Forest, FSU and Boston College all must journey to Clemson, but the rivalry will continue with the Gamecocks in Columbia. Watch out for the Oct. 20 homecoming meeting with Central Michigan – the Chippewas finished 10-4 last season, with close losses to Boston College and Kentucky, two teams that beat Clemson in 2006.

Top Newcomer: QB Willy Korn. The Duncan, S.C. native was pivotal in Bowden's 2007 recruiting class, and chances are that he will be equally as important in the Tigers' hope for a spot in the ACC Championship Game. He enrolled in January, so he's been through spring practice and already has a solid grasp of Spence's offensive playbook. While he may not start the season, we think it's likely that he will finish the fall in that first-string spot.

Key Game: At NCSU in Raleigh on Sept. 22. Sure, the Clemson faithful circled the Labor Day showdown with Papa Bowden when the schedule came out in January. But while that game is on national television in primetime, the game versus the Wolfpack is even more important. Even with a loss to the Seminoles, two easy victories over ULM and Furman would allow the Tigers to regain their confidence and stay in the Atlantic Division race with a win in Raleigh. A loss to the Pack would drop the Tigers to 0-2 in the ACC, with games at Georgia Tech and home versus Virginia Tech on the horizon. Win both the FSU and NCSU games, and the Tigers are in good shape to win the Atlantic Division, with Wake Forest and Boston having to travel to Death Valley in November.

Bowden on the pros and cons of playing his dad: "The bad is that they are well coached and very talented. He's the winningest coach in the history of college football. The good is ... I don't know there is any good ... unless you win. Again, it's not so much me beating him because neither one of us play. But from a professional standpoint, they are awfully talented and if you can beat them you are beating the best there is out there."

Merling on this season's focus: "We're thinking about finishing the job. That's been our slogan this summer. Last year, things didn't work out in the last part of the season, because we really didn't finish as good as we should have. But this year, we're going to finish like we should have done last year."

Word from the Beat: "It's hard to really know what to expect from Clemson. I could see them going anywhere from 6-6 to 10-2. I think their skill guys are as good or better than anybody, with Spiller, Davis, Jacoby Ford, and some of the guys on defense, but I think the reason that there is some hesitance to really think they're going to do great things with any confidence is that their question marks are in the wrong places – at quarterback, at offensive line and at receiver to an extent. Then there's special teams, with kickoff coverage and the fact that that they don't know who is going to kick field goals... So, I think I'm a lot like some other people, in that if they didn't do it last year, then when are they going to do it? Because last year, all of the circumstances were in their favor to do it, and they didn't do it." -- Larry Williams, Charleston News & Courier

2007 Schedule

S. 3 Florida State

S. 8 Louisiana-Monroe

S. 15 Furman

S. 22 at NCSU

S. 29 at Georgia Tech

O. 6 Virginia Tech

O. 13 bye

O. 20 Central Michigan (HC)

O. 27 at Maryland

N. 3 at Duke

N. 10 Wake Forest

N. 17 Boston College

N. 24 at South Carolina

James Davis

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