In 2011, the Clemson Tigers football team finished 10-4 and 6-2 in the ACC. The 6-2 mark was good enough to win the ACC Atlantic Division, and the Tigers went on to blow out Virginia Tech 38-10 in the ACC Championship Game, giving the program its first ACC Championship in 20 years.
Clemson finished the season on a bit of a rough note, however, as they got throttled by West Virginia by a score of 70-33 in the Orange Bowl.
The 2012 version of the Clemson Tigers are ranked No. 14 in the preseason polls and have the potential to be one of the best in years. With experienced players returning on both sides of the ball, the Tigers will have a great chance to contend for the ACC Championship again this season and possibly even the national championship if everything comes together.
Let’s get started talking about the offense. The Tigers are loaded this season on the offensive side of the ball, and they will look to put up a ton of points. They return seven starters to an offense that was one of the best in the country last season, and in year two under offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ system, they look to be even more explosive.
The one possible weak spot of the offense could be on the O-line. The Tigers lost three starters from last season. However, they do return All-ACC first-teamer Dalton Freeman at center along with Brandon Thomas, who as of right now will be moving out to the left tackle spot after taking over the starting job at left guard midseason last year.
The other projected starters at this point are David Beasley at left guard, Tyler Shatley at right guard and Shaq Anthony at right tackle. Shatley, who is moving to the O-line after receiving substantial playing time at the defensive tackle position the past couple of seasons, is expected to be a solid player on the line this year.
Gifford Timothy was the projected starter at right tackle until he went down with a knee injury a few weeks ago. Timothy should be healthy soon, but it is still to be determined when he will return. Freshmen Isaiah Battle and Joe Gore are two guys to watch at the tackle positions, though, as they have the size and athletic ability to be able to man those positions and may push for more playing time during the season.
At tight end, Brandon Ford will be expected to fill the big shoes left by Mackey Award winner and All-ACC first-teamer D’wayne Allen. Last year in his first full season at the position, Ford showed great potential and was a key contributor. He should have a breakout season this year for the Tigers.
At running back, the Tigers return All-ACC second-teamer and 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington as the starter. Ellington was speculated to be going to the NFL after last season, but instead he decided to come back for one more year with the Tigers.
Depth could be an issue at the running back position after Mike Bellamy was ruled academically ineligible during the summer. D.J. Howard will now have to take on the role of the second-team back. Howard had some nice performances during his freshman season last year, and should provide a solid backup to Ellington.
True freshman Zac Brooks is someone to look out for at this position. Brooks enrolled early and went through spring practice with the team, showing excellent speed and strength.
Wide receiver is probably the deepest of all the positions on this Clemson roster, and it is one of the best wide receiving corps in the country. The Tigers return a plethora of options to throw to, including last year’s freshman sensation, Sammy Watkins. Watkins was a first-team All-American and had over 1,000 yards receiving while he rewrote the Clemson record books in just his first season on campus.
Due to a run-in with the law back in the spring, Watkins is suspended for the first two games of the season, but is expected to be ready to go against Furman in the third game of the year.
Near-1,000-yard receiver DeAndre Hopkins also returns along with Jaron Brown, who is an underrated part of the receiving corps that always comes through in third-down situations.
Big things are also expected this season from sophomores Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake. Bryant and Peake both showed flashes of brilliance last season, and Bryant will be expected to provide a vertical threat this season.
True freshman Germone Hopper is a very electric player who could receive substantial playing time this season.
At QB, the Tigers return All-ACC first-teamer and record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd. Boyd threw for over 3,000 yards last season in his first season as the starter. He has slimmed down some over the spring and will try to become more of a threat to run the ball this season as well.
Boyd finished with 33 touchdowns through the air last season and 38 total, which was an ACC record.
True freshman Chad Kelly is a heralded recruit who enrolled in school in the summer. Kelly is expected to compete for the backup quarterback job to give the defense a different look. Kelly is very athletic and could pose a threat to defenses this season.
On defense, the Tigers return seven starters from last year’s squad. First-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables comes to Clemson from Oklahoma, and he will look to improve the defense after last year’s disappointing season on that side of the ball.
Clemson has to replace three starters from last season’s defensive line. The Tigers will start Malliciah Goodman at one defensive end position and either Corey Crawford or Vic Beasley at the other defensive end spot. Grady Jarrett will start at the nose guard position, and either Deshawn Williams or Josh Watson at defensive tackle.
All of these players have potential to have big seasons, and Venables will need at least a couple of them to do so.
True freshmen Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader could also be surprises on the line this season.
The Tigers return three starters at linebacker, and another player who also started three games last season. At this point, the projected starters are Quandon Christian at SLB, Stephone Anthony at MLB, and Tig Willard or Corico Hawkins at WLB.
Anthony had a solid freshman season, and the coaches are expecting big things from him this season. He has the size and speed to make plays all over the field.
A couple of other sophomores in Lateek Townsend and Tony Steward could make big impacts this season for the Tigers. Townsend loves to fly around and make hits and could be a big asset rushing the passer this season. Steward is recovering from ACL surgery and will hopefully be good to go.
In the secondary, a lot of veterans return for Clemson. At the cornerback positions, Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland are currently slated to start. Both Robinson and Breeland started some last season, and they both showed the potential to be able to lockdown receivers.
The safety spots are still up in the air at the moment, with either Jonathan Meeks or Rashard Hall starting at strong safety, and either Xavier Brewer or Hall starting at free safety.
Meeks is a big hitter who likes to help in run support. Brewer is moving to safety from corner, and will look to provide some better coverage from the safety spot than what was seen in the past year. Hall is a graduate student who had a team-high 89 tackles last season. He played most of the year with a knee injury that slowed him at times, but he had surgery in the offseason to repair it, and he should be good to go in the fall.
The recent news of Martin Jenkins having to redshirt will hurt this group some, however, as he came on big time around midseason and showed some great cover ability last season.
Cortez Davis is a player that could really surprise some people this season. Davis is a monster for the corner position, measuring in at 6'3".
True freshman Travis Blanks enrolled early and was said to be pushing for the starting nickel-back position and could make a big impact this year.
On special teams, Clemson returns second-team All-ACC kicker Chandler Catanzaro. Catanzaro connected on 22-of-27 field goals and led the ACC in scoring last season.
Punting for the Tigers is projected to be Spencer Benton, but do not be surprised if freshman Bradley Pinion wins the job during the season.
Hopkins will be returning punts again this season. Last year, the Tigers mostly caught fair punts, but this year they will look for more opportunities for big returns.
The explosive Watkins will be returning kicks again this year along with Bryant. Both of them are game-breakers who have the ability to take it to the house every time.
Dabo Swinney is back for his fourth full season as Clemson’s head coach. He has a record of 29-19 overall and 19-10 in ACC play thus far.
Swinney has two of the highest-paid and best coordinators in the country on his staff now, and he will be looking to build off of last season’s ACC title. Swinney’s team will have more or equal talent to everyone on their schedule this season.
There is definitely the potential for it to be a special season where the Blue Ridge yawns its greatness as long as the team plays up to their ability. The question is, will they?
The Clemson Tigers start their season against the Auburn Tigers in the Georgia Dome on September 1 at 7p.m. on ESPN.
For more Clemson sports (and sports in general) updates and thoughts on everyday life as well, follow me on Twitter @K_Mart10. You can also check out my podcast, "The OT with KT," on Itunes or on Podomatic.com at http://theotwithkt19478.podomatic.com/