Post-Spring Previews: Clemson Tigers

After hosting the Florida Gators in week eleven, USC takes a week off before wrapping up the season with the annual rivalry match with the Clemson Tigers. The Tigers enter 2009 flying distinctly under the radar in Dabo Swinney's first full season as head coach. After underachieving in each of the last few years of Tommy Bowden's tenure, expectations are decidedly lower for the transitioning Tigers this year. However, in many ways this year's Clemson may be better than the Clemsons of years past. James Davis and Cullen Harper are gone, but C.J. Spiller is still around, the offensive line should be a bit better, and there's talent on the defense. Plus, I have a feeling Swinney will excel his predecessor in the coaching department, not that that's saying so much. This team's ceiling will likely be determined by how far either Kyle Parker or Willy Korn go towards becoming top-tier quarterbacks. Parker appears to be the starter right now, but don't be surprised to see Swinney continue to give Korn a look.

Of course, we've floundered horribly in this rivalry series in recent years. Despite not having been an elite team in recent years, the Tigers have generally had their way with us, winning 11 of the past 13, including a few blowouts, such as the 31-14 beatdown last year at Clemson. By contrast, we've won more games against Georgia in the past decade, despite the fact that the Dawgs have clearly been much better than Clemson in that time span. I've heard lots of theories as to why Clemson has owned us, perhaps the most pervasive being that we're simply spent by the time this game comes around. Personally, I don't buy this theory; the ACC may not be as good as the SEC, but it's not a cake walk, as suggested by the fact that Clemson usually comes into this game with almost as many losses as we have. The Tigers could just as easily say that their schedule wears them out, but they seem to always play their best in this game. The opposite could be said for us.

Whatever the case may be, we have to figure out a way to start winning more of these games, and not just for pride's sake, although that's certainly important. Losing a match with the Tigers may not keep us out of the SEC Title Game in the official standings, but it does hurt us on the recruiting trail, which is one of the things that keeps us from being able to challenge Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in the East. All things considered, we recruit surprisingly well against Clemson considering how badly they usually seem to manhandle us. That has me thinking that if we could turn the tables on them that we could corner the market on the in-state talent. That's what will get us over the hump in the SEC, and that's why Clemson-Carolina is about more than bragging rights.

Let's take a look at how we stack up against the Tigers this year.

Offense

Expect to see Clemson run more spread formations this year than in years past. The Tigers want to get their two best offensive players, C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford, the ball in space so they can make big plays with their speed.

Quarterback

While the Tigers have some talent on offense, they have a big question mark at the position that matters the most. Kyle Parker has won the starting job after solid spring and August practices, but Willy Korn will continue to get looks if Parker struggles. Both are talented, but either way, Clemson will have to rely on a freshman without significant experience this year.

I call this one a push. Stephen Garcia is slightly further along in his development than Parker or Korn and probably has the most upside of the three. However, Clemson has an advantage over us in the depth department.

Verdict: Push

Running Backs

Clemson returns a legitimate Heisman contender in Spiller. Spiller needs no introduction here, as Carolina fans won't be soon to forget what he's done to us over the course of his career. The Tigers will look to Jamie Harper to fill the void left by James Davis. The highly recruited Harper rushed for only around  100 yards last year but will be expected to play a much larger role this year.

I give the Tigers a slight to strong advantage here. We have the talent and depth to have a very good running game this year, but, unfortunately, we don't have a Spiller, who is one of the nation's very best.

Verdict: Slight to strong advantage Clemson

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Clemson loses some significant players here from a year ago. Gone are receivers Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham and end Michael Palmer. The Tigers do return Jacoby Ford, who is a definite big-play threat. However, outside of Ford they have almost no one with any significant experience. Possession receiver and end are question marks for Clemson.

I give Carolina a slight advantage here. Clemson does have the guy with the most career catches, but we have a large number of guys that have proven they're capable, whereas Clemson has no one after Ford. That gives us a key advantage in the depth department.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Offensive Line

Last year, offensive line was Clemson's weakness throughout most of the season. This year, though, the more experienced Tigers offensive line should be better. The Tigers only lose one player, center Bobby Hutchinson, and return a solid group of guys with starting experience. Depth may be the only cause for concern.

The Tigers look quite a bit like us here. Both of us should field much better lines in 2009. I'm calling this a push.

Verdict: Push

Let's take a look at defenses after the jump.

Defense

Clemson runs a 4-3 defense. Swinney and coordinator Kevin Steele have said that they plan to be more aggressive than the previous regime.

Defensive Line

The Tigers are strong at end, which they hope will help them generate a better pass rush than a year ago. Da'Quan Bowers is another Gaines Adams in the making, while Ricky Sapp should be good if he recovers from last year's knee injury. The Tigers did lose some key tackles from a year ago, and may struggle to find depth if Jarvis Jenkins or Brandon Thomas go down.

I give Carolina a very slight advantage here, mainly due to greater experience in the starting lineup and questions about how good Sapp will be after his injury. Both teams are in a similar boat in terms of depth, so the team with the most guys still standing by the end of the year may be the one with the advantage when the time comes.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Linebackers

The Tigers are pretty solid here. Interior linebacker Brandon Maye is great in rushing defense and will probably lead the team in tackles. Kavell Conner gives them a solid outside guy. The other spot is a little shakier, with Scotty Cooper likely starting now that DeAndre McDaniel has moved to safety. Depth is also an issue.

I give us a slight advantage here. The Tigers don't quite have the star power we have at linebacker, but they should be good nonetheless.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Secondary

The secondary is Clemson's defense's strength, as the Tigers return quality experience at every position. Corner Chris Chancellor, who has been very successful against us over the course of his career, is the unit's star. Crezdon Butler is also good at the opposite corner, and the Tigers have quality backups for Chancellor and Butler. The Tigers lose strong safety Michael Hamlin, but they will replace him with the aforementioned McDaniel, who should ably fill Hamlin's shoes. Free safety is a little more of a question mark, but Clemson should be able to figure it out with the talent they have in the secondary reserves.

I give Clemson a slight to strong advantage here. News out of camp has been promising for our young secondary, but the Tigers are unquestionably more of a proven quantity.

Verdict: Slight to strong advantage Clemson

Special Teams

The Tigers will suffer a complete overhaul of their kicking game after losing kicker Mark Buchholz (I'm sure you remember him) and Jimmy Maners. Spencer Benton and Richard Jackson are competing for kicking duties, while Dawson Zimmerman is expected to handle punts. Zimmerman did play some last year and was OK. Clemson does have a potentially explosive return game when Spiller and Ford are returning. Those of you that watched Alabama paste the Tigers last year may remember that one of their few highlights was a long kickoff return for a touchdown by Spiller.

I'll call this a push. We have slightly more stability in the kicking game, the same thing going for Clemson in the return game.

Verdict: Push

Coaches

Dabo Swinney was able to energize the Clemson faithful by finishing the regular season strongly. That finish, of course, included the blowout win over us, which certainly helped Swinney's reputation with Clemson faithful. The true test, though, begins now, after the lustre of that surprise finish has worn off. Swinney is still a coach with very, very little experience, certainly much less than you would expect for a guy in charge of a relatively high-profile program like Clemson. He has to prove that he wasn't a knee-jerk reaction hire--a la West Virginia's Bill Stewart--by having a better than average season this year. He doesn't have to win the ACC, mind you, but he does have the tools to finish in its upper half. If he can't do that--and he fails to beat us--expect the Tigers faithful to immediately begin to question the hire. And rightfully so, I would say; I'm still a bit surprised the Tigers didn't go after someone like Bobby Johnson. If Swinney does well, though, expect the hype machine to begin for the resurgence of Clemson football.

I'll give Steve Spurrier a slight advantage here based on experience. However, as with Lane Kiffin, it's really too early to make many judgment calls about Swinney, so take this comparison with a grain of salt.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Overall

My sense is that these are fairly evenly matched teams. Both should have pretty good defenses and both might have OK offenses if a few things fall into place. A few decisive questions jump out at me when trying to decide which will win. First of all, the two teams share inexperience at quarterback. Whether it's Parker / Korn or Garcia that's playing well by November will be a deciding factor in how good these two teams are relative to each other when they take the field. Second of all, Dabo Swinney and his staff are largely an unknown quantity, so their progress will be important. Finally, both teams have some depth issues on defense that may be exposed by the end of the season. The team that suffers fewest injuries at low-depth positions may have an advantage there. I don't have the answers to these questions right now, so I'm just going to go with my heart (and against historical precedent) and call it a close Carolina victory. I'll go ahead and admit that this pick derives at least in part from homerism and unwillingness to pick Clemson. We obviously have a lot to prove against these guys. I do, though, think the talent gap has closed to a certain degree. We're in a place to even up this series. The only thing remaining is to actually do it.

Prediction: 28-24 Carolina victory

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