March 27, 2009
A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. Expectations, mainly. Last year was Clemson's shot at eclipsing the slightly unfair "underachiever" label with all the stars in their court: Unanimous top-10 rankings; all-ACC-caliber playmakers at every skill position, on the defensive line and in the secondary; and, just as importantly, a parity-stricken conference with a power void ripe for the filling. One drive from the ACC Championship game in 2007, rising seniors Cullen Harper, James Davis, Aaron Kelly and Michael Hamlin all passed on the NFL to solidify Clemson as the conference's top program in their final year. Instead, they fell on their face in the primetime opener against Alabama, lost four of five ACC games during a key midseason stretch, watched their coach go under the guillotine and only salvaged bowl eligibility with a pair of wins over I-AA teams.
And, yes, the coaching situation has been overhauled, too. But Dabo Swinney, despite the three-game, season-salvaging winning streak at the end of the regular season, has none of the expectant cloud that hung over Tommy Bowden for so long -- first-year coaches that lose half their starters from a 7-6 effort tend to have a little breathing room. The slate was wiped clean when Bowden was fired in October; until further notice, this is just another, fairly nondescript team nipping its way through the middle of the ACC's crowded pack.
What's the Same. In passing up the draft in January, C.J. Spiller entered that zone where people start saying, "Hasn't he been around forever?" and smugly referring to you as "Ninth-year senior." In Spiller's case, the effect will be accelerated because he made such a splash as a freshman in 2006, and has been relatively quiet the last two years. Not that he hasn't been around, but his rushing yards have declined two straight years, and the highlight plays -- there was that one against Auburn in the 2007 Peach Bowl and the kickoff return against Alabama, both in losses -- have been fewer and further between. Spiller showed up on the all-ACC offense as second team running back last year mainly by virtue of his increased explosiveness in the passing game, where he went from one catch for longer than 25 yards in 2007 to seven over 25 yards in '08; he had the same number of catches (34) for almost five full yards more per grab.
But because his production hasn't improved much since the day he set foot on campus, Spiller's enormous promise risks falling to the same legacy as his underachieving team's. Even if he's all but guaranteed to go over 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the fourth straight year, Spiller will be measured largely this year by his ability to revive the surprisingly stagnant running game as the feature back, without Davis to man between-the-tackles duty. Minus Davis, Kelly and Tyler Grisham, Spiller is the offensive playmaker. With 20-25 touches per game, this should be his best season -- or at least his most consistent, if nothing else. Good news on that front: All five offensive are back after a rough break-in year.
Blue chips, only blips. Along with Spiller, the two most sought-after, five-star recruits on the Tigers' roster are the defensive ends, Ricky Sapp and Da'Quan Bowers, both of whom will be on the bubble this year to justify the hype, although to different extents. Bowers had a fine freshman season, only picking up one sack (and that against the Citadel) but charging through for eight tackles for loss -- six of them, encouragingly, in the last three games; he'll be counted on for the breakthrough year that eluded Sapp, whose tackle and sack numbers dipped badly as a junior amid nagging injuries. Much moreso than his classmate, Spiller, Sapp will be against the wall as a senior to finally make good on his evident talent.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Swinney is one of those positive thinkers, and wants his players to be, too, so injected a little feel-good color in the spring practice jerseys:
Swinney said the team no longer has a designated first- or second-string.
Offensive players will be on one of three units: Orange, Purple and Pride. Defenders will be on the Attack, Swarm or Pride units.
"You tell a guy he’s a two or a three long enough, eventually he begins to believe he’s a two or a three," Swinney said.
Of course, you tell a guy he's a Purple long enough, he starts to believe that, too. On that note, backup quarterback Willie Korn, heir apparent and occasional stand-in for Cullen Harper, hasn't been able to put any distance between himself and redshirt freshman Kyle Parker for the starting role, despite Parker's regular absences to start in centerfield for the Tiger baseball team. Michael Wade remains the longshot in the mix as well. Swinney said this week the race is "too close to call," though Korn's time in the system, live game experience, better size and recruiting hype all make him the safer guess. Still, it will probably be in the summer, after Parker's rejoined the team full-time, before there's any decision, if there is one.
Best-Case. The offense underachieved to such an embarrassing extent that it should improve regardless of the talent drain at the ball-handling positions. The ACC being the tangled peloton it is, there are only maybe three guaranteed wins on the schedule, but no really solid losses, either. If the quarterback is OK and Spiller stays healthy and gets a steady dose of carries and catches, the Tigers could add four or five points to their scoring average -- a big difference in this league. If the Tigers hold court by beating the same teams they took down last year, and manage to go 3-3 in the other six toss-ups -- against Georgia Tech, Maryland, Wake Forest and Florida State, all winners over Clemson last year, and newcomers Miami and TCU -- they could conceivable climb back to nine regular season wins and challenge for their first Atlantic Division title.
Worst-Case. If things go badly with the new quarterback -- or with the new receivers, or new defensive tackles, or new safeties -- the parade of evenly matched games could fall on the other side of the coin. It's not like they're going to go 3-9; neither the overall nor conference record ever dipped below .500 in Bowden's tenure. There's no reason to assume this team will undergo that kind of regression, so with the typical break-even effort in the ACC and Middle Tennessee and Coastal Carolina fluffing up the non-conference slate, a bowl-ensuring six wins should be the bottom of the barrel.
Non-Binding Forecast. I wouldn't feel right picking the Tigers to do much more than break even, since they're in eight or nine games that will probably be decided by a touchdown or less. This team can't approach last years' ambition, but they also seemed looser late in the year, and seemed to like playing for Swiney. The offense was better late for Spiller's emergence as a receiver. The quarterbacks, while vastly less experienced, should not be a noticeable step down from Harper. So there's nothing wrong with the status quo: Seven wins should be an acceptable year, and eight wins a success. Taking the division championship that was all but taken for granted this time last year would be a major coup.
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Previous premature assessments: Fresno State