Schedule Preview: Clemson

North Carolina opens its 2014 ACC slate with a trip down I-85 to face Clemson for the first time since 2011 on Sept. 27.

Overview: For almost any other program in the ACC, Clemson’s 2013 season would have been a banner year. Here was a team that finished 11-2, defeated two top-12 teams, and won a BCS bowl game in dramatic fashion. The problem is when you have an offense lead by Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, along with a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball, the bar is going to be pretty high. As great as those wins over Georgia and Ohio State were, the two losses dimmed an otherwise bright season. The Tigers were obliterated by eventual national champion Florida State at home in front of the nation (51-14). In addition, Clemson had their regular season end with a loss to hated instate rival South Carolina for the fifth consecutive year.

Despite those two soul-crushing defeats, as well as the departure of Boyd and Watkins, head coach Dabo Swinney will once again have his players ready to compete for another ACC crown. Yes, FSU will be the heavy favorites in the Atlantic Division, but with another Top-20 recruiting class coming into Death Valley, this is a team that is as dangerous as ever. The 2014 campaign will mark Swinney’s sixth season at the helm, and although he might not be the best X’s and O’s coach (he has two outstanding coordinators for that), his ability to recruit players has produced outstanding results. Since 2011, the Tigers have gone 32-8 and participated in BCS bowl games in two of those three seasons.

Swinney also had to weather controversy this offseason. Before spring practice had even gotten underway, the head coach closed a press conference with the news that four players - OT Shaq Anthony, DE Corey Crawford, OG David Beasley, and CB Gary Peters - will be suspended for the season opener versus Georgia. According to the head coach, the quartet broke a team rule. Of the four, Crawford is the toughest loss, as he serves as the defense line’s bookend opposite All-American Vic Beasley.

Offensively, there is no denying that replacing Boyd and Watkins will be a significant undertaking. Watkins was an elite talent that was taken fourth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, while Boyd (who was a sixth round selection of the New York Jets) ended his career with the most TD passes (73) and second-most passing yards (8053) in school history. Back in the spring, Swinney named red-shirt senior Cole Stoudt as his starting quarterback. In his three years backing up Boyd, Stoudt completed 86 of his 119 passes for 742 yards with 8 touchdowns and just one interception. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he is nowhere near the running threat that Boyd was, but Swinney told reporters during the spring that his new starter is “very disciplined,” which should help the offense transition. If Stoudt doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity, it is possible that five-star freshman Deshaun Watson could be inserted into the lineup. Watson was the top-rated recruit at his position in the class of 2014, and is the rare dual-threat quarterback that has some size (6-foot-3, 190 lbs) to go along with his speed.

The departures of Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins in consecutive seasons are severe blows, but sophomore Mike Williams and senior Adam Humphries have the ability to expand their roles from last season. The real potential, however, comes from the incoming freshman class. The Tigers have three four-star wide outs (Demarre Kitt, Artavis Scott and Trevion Thompson) as well as four-star tight end Milan Richard, all of who are looking to become the next great Clemson receiver. On the ground, a trio of backs will fight it out to see who gets the lion’s share of the touches. As of now, upperclassmen Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard are the front runners. But, don’t be surprised if four-star recruit Adam Choice (cousin of former NFL running back Tashard Choice) pushes for playing time as well.

While the Tiger two best offensive players departed for the NFL, the teams’ best defensive player decided to return to school for his senior season. That player is Beasley, who many experts consider to be one of the best defensive players in America. The Adairsville, Ga. native was an AP Second-Team All-American and a first-team All-ACC selection, and his 13 sacks was tied for third-most in the nation. Joining Beasley are seniors Grady Jarrett, who had 83 tackles at defensive tackle, and linebacker Stephone Anthony, who led the team with 131 total tackles. Clemson had the 10th-best offense in the country last season, averaging over 500 yards per game, but with the personnel losses that number is likely to come down. That means that there will be added pressure on this veteran defense (top 25 in average YPG in 2013) to be even better in 2014.

Historical Outlook: Since 2000, these two teams have only met seven times, with Clemson coming out on top in five of those contests. In those five victories, the Tigers have averaged 44 points per game. In the all-time series, Clemson has won 35 of the 55 meetings (with one tie) in one of the ACC’s oldest rivalries (the two teams first played all the way back in 1897).

Quotables
"They've not been arrested, not rob a bank, 4 guys I care about a whole lot, broke team rule. As result, going to miss a game." –Swinney on suspending four players for the season opener against Georgia

"The thing I like about Cole is that he's very disciplined. He lives by the motto that, 'You don't ever go broke by making a profit.' If it's just a simple check down that the defense will give him, he will take it. He doesn't force anything, he'll just keep moving the chains." – Swinney on Stoudt

Notable Matchups: Clemson has the second hardest out of conference schedule in all the land, according to The Sporting News. The biggest reasons for that has to do with taking on two of the SEC’s best teams in Georgia (in a prime time game over Labor Day weekend) and South Carolina (the season-ending rivalry game on Nov. 29). It is also worth noting that the week before their tilt with UNC, Clemson has to go on the road to take on defending national champion FSU (a divisional rival that ended the Tigers title hopes last year).

 

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