The ACC Dark Horse: Clemson Tigers
Clemson fans are happy to be off the radar after a season of disappointment in Pickens County. The enter this season picked to finish either second or third, behind FSU and NC State in their division and behind Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, UNC and Miami overall.
3 Biggest Reasons They Can:
-The offensive line is Clemson’s most important reason. The Tigers entered 2008 replacing four starters in the unit and they ended up starting nine different players as they shuffled due to injury and performance. This season, thanks in part to last season’s trials, the Tigers have plenty of experience returning all five starters as well as three reserves with starting experience and several others with snaps under their belt. The difference a year makes should be the first step towards the Tigers dark horse campaign as they’ll be able to open holes for talented running back CJ Spiller as well as protect the young quarterbacks Willie Korn and Kyle Parker.
-The Tigers defensive line only accounted for eight of their pathetic fourteen sack total in 2008; that should change drastically in 2009. The young manchild Da’Quan Bowers has a year under his belt after truly showing in the Gator Bowl that he’s capable of putting up big numbers and getting to the quarterback. Opposite Bowers is end Ricky Sapp who returns from ACL surgery for his senior campaign.
This unit is as talented as any in the country with Brandon Thompson and Jarvis Jenkins both capable of manning the middle effectively. The biggest asset to the Tiger’s front four will be Kevin Alexander; forced to start in Sapp’s absence the senior defensive end should help Bowers and Sapp wreak havoc in the ACC on third and long.
-Along with the improvements of the defensive line comes Dabo Swinney hire Kevin Steele. Steele’s has the chance to be the biggest impact hire in the ACC after a season where he worked with Saban to produce one of the nation’s best defenses. At Clemson he’s got all the tools to paint a masterpiece on the defensive side of the ball. Speed on the edges with Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor; experience in the back seven through DeAndre McDaniel’s return to safety plus Brandon Maye and Kavell Conner at linebacker and of course a plethora of talent in his front four.
Look for the Tigers to take on an aggressive attitude that they’ve been lacking in recent seasons. Steele will likely implement some innovative schemes to maximize his pass rush as well as confuse offenses through using some of the 3-4 scheme he’s most widely recognized for from his NFL and Bama days.
Biggest Roadblock To Their Dark Horse Dreams:
Home dates with Florida State and TCU as well as road dates at Georgia Tech, Miami and NC State are going to be daunting but doable. For the Tigers the biggest roadblock is the inexperience of Dabo Swinney. The former Alabama walk-on enters his first full season at the helm and the expectations have been tempered and rightfully so.
Every young coach experiences pratfalls and the way Swinney chooses to navigate the unavoidable injuries, impending quarterback controversy and in-game situations will be the difference between the Tigers breaking into serious ACC title contention and wallowing in mediocrity.