This post continues our series checking in on next season's opponents. Our goal is to have gathered useful information about each character from Carolina's villains gallery prior to the beginning of the season. We've previously talked about the East Carolina Pirates, the Georgia Bulldogs, the Navy Midshipmen, the Vanderbilt Commodores, the Auburn Tigers, the Kentucky Wildcats, the Mississippi St. Bulldogs, the , the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Florida Gators, and the Citadel Bulldogs. Today, we're talking about our fine furry friends, the Clemson Tigers.
Our rivals from the upstate are coming off one of their worst seasons in many years, suffering a losing record for the first time since 1998. That was Tommy West's last year on Lake Hartwell, and considering the esteem in which the Tigers faithful hold West, you have to imagine that Dabo Swinney is feeling more than a bit of pressure coming into the 2011 season. On top of the losing record, the Tigers have now lost two straight blowouts to Carolina. Prior to the last two games, Clemson hadn't lost two straight to Carolina since the early 70s, so, again, Swinney is exploring unfamiliar, unfriendly waters with his recent performance. Swinney, though, did manage to build some goodwill for his program with his masterful performance on the recruiting trail, where he signed a top-10 class that included four Rivals.com five-star recruits. His recruiting success may buy him a little bit more time to build a championship contender and to reestablish in-state supremacy, although one still has to think that he is at risk of losing his job if he can't at least improve on last year's six wins.
Significant Personnel Losses
Clemson returns an experienced squad with 17 returning starters. Clemson's biggest offensive loss is QB Kyle Parker, although after Parker's forgettable performance last season, many Tigers fans may see his departure as a blessing. Clemson also loses power back Jamie Harper. Clemson returns more or less all of its other key offensive contributors, including a very experienced line. The Tigers lose more on defense, including end Da'Quan Bowers and safety DeAndre McDaniel, but they have some talent returning, as well.Defensive Outlook
The Tigers had one of the nation's better defenses a year ago, but lost a fair amount of talent to the NFL. However, with gifted coordinator Kevin Steele on the sidelines, returning stars like DT Brandon Thompson and DE Andre Branch, and plenty of bluechip talent in the storehouse, one tends to think that Clemson will field a solid defense. There may be a drop-off from last year, but it shouldn't be too terribly steep.
Clemson fired underperforming offensive coordinator Billy Napier over the off-season, replacing him with Chad Morris, who plans to install a Malzahn-esque up-tempo attack. Morris is a talented coach who successfully engineered one of the nation's most productive offenses at Tulsa last year. The question isn't whether he can successfully install his offense at Clemson; it's how soon he can do so. As with any profound switch in philosophies, this one may take time. However, with a fairly experienced and, even if underachieving, talented group of players, Morris has some tools to work with. The biggest keys will be the progress of QB Tajh Boyd and keeping super-talented RB Andre Ellington healthy. If Boyd plays well and Ellington has an entire season's worth of the performances he had early last year, Clemson should at the very least improve on its offensive performance from a year ago.
Coming into 2011, it might seem that this game means a bit less than it usually does. We finally have legitimate aspirations of significant conference and national achievements, meaning that this year we'll need to do more than challenge Clemson to consider this season a success. Moreover, with the past two victories over the Tigers, one might say we've put some old ghosts to rest, so to speak. Regardless, this is still the biggest game of the year, at least in my opinion. I'm a traditionalist, and I believe strongly in the importance on in-state rivalries. Even if Clemson never joins the SEC, this game will always mean more to me than the games against Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. In-state rivalries are what this game is all about. If you think that a home loss to Clemson won't take away from the luster of whatever other accomplishments we achieve this year, think again. Just ask your orange brethren how it felt to lose to us in an otherwise strong 2009 campaign. Trust me, this is not a fate we want to suffer. Simply put, we have to win this game to consider this a truly successful season.
I think Clemson will be a better team this year than it was a year ago, and I don't think we'll have quite the easy time with the Tigers this year that we have had in the past two. However, Clemson still has a lot of question marks on offense, and while I think they'll improve in that regard this year, I'll have to see it before I'll believe they're capable of outscoring a team with our amount of offensive firepower. Clemson's defense will keep it close throughout the early going and Ellington may break a big run or two to help the Tigers put some points on the board, but Carolina will emerge victorious.