Furman's football tradition obviously means something to its supporters, and with very good reason. Although Furman has a small faction of fans compared to Appalachian State or Georgia Southern, it has a very passionate fan base. The program has won one of two Division I football crowns in the Palmetto State, as the Paladins took home the 1988 Division I-AA national title with a 17-12 win over Georgia Southern, and a SoCon standard 12 league titles.
In 24 hours, the Furman football program will likely encounter a rare situation, not seen in 33 years, as the Paladins face the very real proposition of starting a season 0-3 for the first time since second-year head coach Bruce Fowler was a defensive back for the Paladins back in 1979. The Paladins have also claimed 11 Southern Conference crowns since that 1979 season, which saw the Paladins complete the campaign with a 5-6 record after starting 0-4.
Few give Furman a chance at keeping the score within 30 points tomorrow against FBS No. 11 Clemson, who gets All-ACC wide receiver Sammy Watkins back from suspension.
Perhaps more alarming is that Furman’s recent struggles have become a trend. The Paladins have now lost four straight heading into Saturday afternoon’s clash with the Clemson Tigers, closing the 2011 season with losses to Elon (41-34) and Florida (54-32) before beginning the 2012 season with losses to Samford (24-21) and last week’s triple-overtime setback to Coastal Carolina (47-45).
The Paladins did enter the 2012 season returning 15 starters (six offense, eight defense, one specialist) off a team that finished 6-5 in 2011, which was a one-win improvement from the 2010 squad, which posted a 5-6 mark and ended a string of 12-straight winning seasons.
Furman was selected to finish in the middle of the pack at the preseason Southern Conference Media Day, held in late July, as the Paladins were a consensus fifth-place selection, which was a more than fair assessment.
Now it is up to the 2012 edition of the Paladins to decide what their legacy will be, and they have some work to do. Even if Furman loses on Saturday to Clemson to fall to 0-3, the Paladins will still have eight chances remaining to avoid being just the fourth team since ’79 to complete the season with a losing record.
Over the past 32 years, only one team has failed to win fewer than three games in a season, and that was the 1994 Paladins, which was also the first season under the direction of Bobby Johnson. That ’94 Furman team claimed just three wins on the campaign, finishing with a 3-8 overall mark, and a sixth-place finish in the SoCon, with a 2-6 mark. Furman hasn’t won less than three games in a season since 1977, when Furman finished the campaign 2-9.
Johnson, of course, would take the program back to the pinnacle of the Southern Conference just a few years later, leading the Paladins to Southern Conference titles in 1999 and 2001, as well as taking the Paladins all the way to the national championship in ’01, before the Paladins dropped a 13-6 record in the national championship.
So when Furman knocked off two top-five foes, No. 4 Wofford (26-21) and No. 3 Appalachian State (20-10), in a three-week period last fall and entered the national polls at No. 17, was it all a fluke? Well, the answer is no, but the other answer is that Furman probably played over its head.
Still, is this a Furman program that talent-wise is on the same rung of the ladder as that ’94 squad that finished with a meager 3-8 record? No, Furman has much more talent than that ’94 squad, but the Southern Conference has also vastly improved as a league since 1994. Eighteen years ago, there were always those guaranteed wins for most schools in the league by beating school like VMI, East Tennessee State or Chattanooga.
In 1994, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Marshall were the teams that ruled the roost in the league. Now, however, no victory comes easily, and since 2007, the league has seen several teams regularly challenge the league’s elite at different times. Any one of five or six teams could legitimately win the SoCon this fall. At a program where losing hasn’t been commonplace, the 2012 season has gotten off to a nightmarish start.
Below is a quick look at tomorrow’s Furman-Clemson clash.
Furman (0-2, 0-1 SoCon) at No. 11 Clemson (2-0, 0-0 ACC)
Furman will take on Clemson for the first time since the 2007 season, when the Paladins dropped a 38-10 decision to the Tigers. For Furman, it faces a team that is not only the defending ACC champion, but that some consider the most talented Clemson team since the 1981 National Title team and the most talented offense in the history of the program.
That’s a sobering thought for a Furman program, which some believe might be the worst Paladin team in the past 30 years, that will enter tomorrow’s tilt already off to an 0-2 start. Traditionally, Furman has occasionally played well against its FBS counterparts, but is just 1-20 against the elite class of Division I college football since 1987, with that lone win being a 28-3 decision against North Carolina in 1999.
Adding to the already daunting task, Furman will be starting a true freshman under center for the first time on Saturday, as Reese Hannon (22-of-35 passing, 255 yds, 4 TDs) will lead the Paladin offense at Memorial Stadium. He led the Paladins offense to score on their final six possessions of the day, and garnered SoCon Freshman of the Week accolades for his efforts last week after replacing injured starter Dakota Derrick.
Hannon will handing the football to All-SoCon running back Jerodis Williams (35 att, 183 yds, 2 TDs, 5.2 YPC, 3 rec, 16 yds) and will have some talented options to throw the football to, such as Will King (13 rec, 205 yds, 2 TDs, 15.8 YPR) and preseason All-America tight end Colin Anderson (4 rec, 71 yds, 17.8 YPR).
Furman hasn’t been all that bad offensively this season and enter Saturday’s contest tied for 27th in the FCS in scoring offense (33.0 PPG), 33rd in total offense (399.0 YPG), 50th in rush offense (150.5 YPG) and 25th in pass offense (248.5). The Paladins are managing the passing attack well coming into Saturday afternoon’s contest, as their 248.5 yards-per-game average through the air also ranks second in the Southern Conference to Appalachian State’s 280.0 YPG through the first two weeks.
Defensively, it has been a disappointment for Furman, as the Paladins have not looked too good through the first two weeks. Furman comes into Saturday’s contest tied for 65th in the FCS rankings in total defense (383.0 YPG), 90th in pass defense (254.0 YPG), 80th in scoring defense (35.5 PPG) and 44th in rush defense (131.0 YPG).
Leading the charge on defense Saturday will be talented defensive ends Josh Lynn (10 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 QBHs) and Shawn Boone (7 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks), while Mitch McGrath (20 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT) solidifies a strong corps of linebackers. Both Lynn and McGrath were preseason All-SoCon selections.
The secondary has been the biggest concern so far, but the Paladins have an all-conference tandem at safety in Greg Worthy (12 tackles, 1 PBU) and Nathan Wade (21 tackles, 1 PBU). The Furman defense has caused only one turnover, an INT, through the first couple of weeks.
Clemson has plenty of weapons beyond Sammy Watkins entering Saturday afternoon’s clash with the Paladins, including DeAndre Hopkins (19 rec, 224 yds, 4 TDs, 11.8 YPR) as Watkins’ partner-in-crime at wide receiver, and Andre Ellington (38 carries, 269 yds, 2 TDs, 7.1 YPC) running the football.
Clemson enters Saturday afternoon’s clash with the Paladins ranking 20th nationally in total offense (527.0 YPG), 27th in scoring offense (39.0 PPG), 29th in passing offense (290.0 YPG) and 25th in rushing offense (237.0 YPG).
The Tigers have logged a total of 171 plays so far this season, which is more than 80 plays per game, with their fast-break offensive scheme. That is a pretty astounding average to any college football enthusiast.
Preseason All-ACC signal-caller Tahj Boyd (19 rec, 224 yds, 4 TDs, 11.8 YPR) has led a Clemson offense that has scored seven of its first eight possessions in the 52-27 win over Ball State last week, and a unit that has rolled up 500 or more yards in each of the Tigers’ first two games of the 2012 campaign.
Defensively, the Tigers haven’t looked as sound, but the unit is still young and has plenty of athleticism. Linebackers Stephone Anthony (17 tackles, 1 PBU) and Jonathan “Tig” Willard (11 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBUs) have paced the defense so far this season, but a young secondary has continued to be a concern.
Final Prediction: This one won’t be close, but the Paladins should score a few points against the Clemson defense that has at times yielded the big play.
Clemson 50, Furman 17