While the ACC is losing a significant amount of talent from 2011, the conference is still littered with top-tier talent, which is something that Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers must recognize if they hope to repeat as ACC champions in 2012.
In 2011, the Clemson Tigers won the ACC Atlantic Division with a 6-2 conference record and defeated the Virginia Tech Hokies in the ACC Championship game in December.
In 2012, there are a handful of ACC players in particular that Clemson must pay close attention to. If they fail to prepare for these players, it could change the outcome of those games and the Tigers' entire season.
The Tigers will kick off ACC play in Week 4 this season when they travel to Tallahassee to face the Seminoles of Florida State.
The 'Noles have a surplus of play makers, but nobody will be getting the attention from Clemson like quarterback E.J. Manuel—who missed last year's showdown due to an injured left shoulder. Clint Trickett started in place of Manuel and had a terrific game with 368 yards through the air and three touchdown passes.
This year, you can be sure that Manuel will be psyched to suit up against Clemson. The senior will relish the opportunity to knock off what will likely be the closest-ranked ACC opponent of FSU.
Manuel is one of the better quarterbacks in the ACC—which is saying something considering the level of talent at that position in the conference. He was sixth in the conference last season with 222 passing yards per game and finished with 18 touchdown passes, good enough for seventh among ACC quarterbacks.
The 22-year-old certainly has the ability to take over any game—evidenced by his outstanding showing against a stingy Notre Dame defense in the Champs Sports Bowl. Manuel threw for 249 yards—Notre Dame allowed just over 205 yards through the air on average—and two touchdowns.
Come September 22, expect the Tiger's defensive game plan geared toward shutting Manuel down, as he will pose the biggest threat to Clemson's success in that game.
One Seminole who did play in that game against Clemson last year is defensive end Brandon Jenkins.
On a team with so many gifted pass rushers, it's hard to carve out consistent playing time, but Jenkins did so as a junior last year—racking up 41 tackles, eight of them for loss. Jenkins' stellar 2011 season earned him a spot on the All-ACC second team.
In the two years that Jenkins has received significant playing time, he's totaled 116 tackles, 36.5 tackles for loss and 21.5 quarterback sacks.
Jenkins is one of the most talented pass rushers in the ACC and has the ability to change a game with a single play. Tajh Boyd and the Clemson offense better locate him before every snap come September.
Virginia Tech Hokie's quarterback Logan Thomas is one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country, not just the ACC. He's one of just six quarterbacks who threw and rushed for double-digit touchdowns last season, according to cfbstats.com.
His 11 rushing touchdowns set a school record for rushing TDs by a quarterback in one season, according to ESPN's Heather Dinich. He also broke Tyrod Taylor's total offense record set in 2010.
Last year, the Tigers traveled to Blacksburg, VA to face Thomas and the Hokies—a game which Clemson dominated, winning 23-3. In that contest, Thomas threw for just 125 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Obviously, the then-sophomore was upset with his performance. However, the Hokies got a chance at redemption when they faced the Tigers in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte.
While Thomas performed better than the first game—274 yards with one TD and two interceptions—the Tigers defeated Virginia Tech 38-10.
After two embarrassing losses at the hands of Clemson last season, Thomas will surely be eager to perform his best when the Hokies head to Death Valley in Week 8 of this season.
The game falls on the heels of a bye Week for the Tigers—giving the team plenty of time to prepare for the Hokies, Thomas in particular. And they're going to need every minute of preparation they can get.
N.C. State cornerback David Amerson had one of the best seasons by a cornerback in recent memory. He led the nation with 13 interceptions—five more than anybody else—which resulted in two touchdowns and also added 59 total tackles.
Amerson's 13 interceptions broke multiple records. According to Heather Dinich, he broke the ACC's single-season interception record and N.C. State's 73-year-old single-season interception record of nine.
The Wolfpack was responsible for handing Clemson its second loss in the ACC last season when they defeated the No. 7 ranked Tigers 37-13. Fittingly, Amerson broke the ACC record when he picked off Tajh Boyd in that game.
Granted, Clemson played without star receiver Sammy Watkins, but nevertheless, Amerson and the rest of the Wolfpack defense did their job—forcing the Tigers into four turnovers.
It's going to be another late-season showdown between these two squads in 2012, as they match up in Week 12—this time in Death Valley.
The Amerson-Watkins matchup will be extremely fun to watch as the two All-Americans battle toe-to-toe.
This game is going to carry even more weight due to its late-season nature. Clemson will likely be competing for an ACC championship game bid at that point in the season and would not be able to afford a loss.
Preparing for the outstanding ball hawk that is David Amerson will be the first step in avoiding that loss.
Another player the Tigers must prepare for in that Week 12 matchup is N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon.
Glennon torched Clemson in last year's game to the tune of 253 yards and three touchdowns. Touchdown passes were something he'd grown accustomed to as the then-junior was one of just 15 quarterbacks nationwide to throw at least 30 TDs.
Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Glennon were the ACC's two best passing quarterbacks last season—the only QBs with 3,000 yards and 30 TDs—and not much will change in 2012. Expect these two quarterbacks to put on a show when the teams match up on November 17.
Glennon seems to be one of the more underrated players in the ACC. However, the Tigers cannot afford to underestimate this guy, as they know all too well what he is capable of.