It is only mid-May, yet discussions about the 2008 college football season are already taking place.
One team that seems to have a lot going for them this year is the Clemson Tigers. Can the Tigers finally win the ACC under head coach Tommy Bowden? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but here is a preview of what to expect from this team in 2008.
After a disappointing Chick-Fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn, the Clemson Tigers began preparations for 2008 immediately, and in a big way.
Bowden and his staff put together one of the best recruiting classes in Clemson history, which included 10 players who played in the Under Armour All-American Game in January.
One of those players just happened to be the No. 1 defensive end prospect in the country, Da’Quan Bowers. This spring has been good for the Tigers, but there are a few areas of concern for Bowden.
Offense (seven returning starters): The running back tandem of James Davis and CJ Spiller will be fun to watch this season. "Thunder and Lightning," as they are often called, can shred apart defenses.
Davis is an NFL-style running back. He’s big and powerful, but has very quick feet and his vision is remarkable. Spiller is a smaller back but runs like the wind. His ability to make reads and cuts is extraordinary, and his lightning speed gets him to the secondary in a flash.
These two running backs are great, but will have to rely upon an inexperienced offensive line. The Tigers are starting four people at new positions this year—center Thomas Austin and right guard Barry Humphries are the only two players who return with experience.
However, Humphries only started two games at right guard in 2007. The O-line may be inexperienced, but makes up for it with its athletic ability and talent. Redshirt freshman Mason Cloy was a highly-touted recruit out of high school and he, along with several others, will compete for starting positions on the line.
Cullen Harper, arguably one of the nation’s top returning quarterbacks, is the key to the Clemson offense. When defenses are stacking eight in the box to stuff Davis and/or Spiller, Harper will have to use his arm to make the plays.
In 2007, Harper threw 27 TDs to only six INTs. However, it was the big games that proved to be a little too much for the first-year starter.
This season, Harper will have a veteran receiving corps to throw to.
Senior Aaron Kelly (2007 First-Team All-ACC) returns at wideout along with Tyler Grisham, Jacoby Ford, and Rendrick Taylor. Taylor will also be used as a running back in goal line situations. Xavier Dye and Brandon Clear will also receive significant playing time, as these two receivers are tall, athletic, and very talented.
Chad Diehl, Akeem Robinson, and Brian Linthicum will play a big role as TEs in Rob Spence’s offense. Linthicum, a freshman in 2007, recorded 11 catches for 76 yards and three TDs.
Backup quarterback Willy Korn, who redshirted in 2007 due to a shoulder injury, may also see some time this season if Bowden chooses to use him like Urban Meyer did at Florida with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow in 2006 (the year the Gators won the national title). Korn was regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school in 2006, but is likely going to have to wait until after this season before he gets the nod to start.
This offense will have to grow up quick (mainly the O-line) as the Tigers take on Alabama in the Georgia Dome on August 30th to open the 2008 season.
Defense (seven returning starters): Despite losing DE Phillip Merling to the NFL Draft and key LBs Tramaine Billie and Nick Watkins, the 2008 Tiger defense is hoping to finish the season as one of the top defenses in country.
While the Tigers may be thin at LB, the rest of the defense is pretty stacked.
Starting up front, Clemson reloads with DEs Ricky Sapp and Da’Quan Bowers. Bowers, the top defensive end recruit in the nation in 2007, signed early with the Tigers and already made a huge impact in the Clemson spring game.
He finished the game with a team-leading seven tackles, including two sacks. Both Sapp and Bowers are very athletic and quick off the line, and should be able to pressure quarterbacks on a lot of plays.
Anchoring the middle of the line is Dorell Scott, a 2008 Outland Trophy Award candidate. At 6’4", 320 pounds, Scott has the size and ability to stuff the running game up the middle. If this line plays up to its potential, most quarterbacks will be wishing that halftime was the end of the game.
Clemson has to replace two linebackers this season who were two of the top four tacklers from 2007.
Nick Watkins and Tramaine Billie have both started for much of the last four years, but the replacements are a very talented group. Josh Miller stepped up in a big way at middle linebacker in the spring. He will likely be number one on the depth chart at that position in the fall.
Kavell Connor and Scotty Cooper look to be the leading candidates at the weakside and strongside positions, respectively. Jeremy Campbell, Brandon Maye and Stanley Hunter will also compete for time at the linebacking spots.
The defensive secondary for the Tigers may be the class of the ACC. Michael Hamlin (2008 Bronko Nagurski candidate) and Chris Clemons will head the safety spots, while Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler will man the corners.
All four are returning starters from 2007 and bring a great amount of experience to the secondary, while Chancellor and Hamlin both led the team in INTs with four apiece.
Several other players saw significant playing time in 2007 and should see more in 2008 to go along with the starting four. DeAndre McDaniel, Marcus Gilchrist, Byron Maxwell and Sadat Chambers all lettered last season.
McDaniel was a First-Team All-ACC Freshman last year, and tied for second on the team in passes broken up. The Tigers also have a talented group of freshmen coming in who may compete with these guys for playing time.
Special Teams (both kickers returning): Punter Jimmy Maners and placekicker Mark Buchholz will be the kickers for Clemson this season. Maners ranked 20th in the country in 2007 among punters for average yards/punt with an average of 42.8 yards.
Maners had 16 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and had 13 punts of at least 50 yards. That includes a long of 71 yards.
Buchholz made a Clemson record 48 PATs and was perfect in that category on the 2007 season. He also made 22 of 36 field goals with a long 52 yards. He doubled as a soccer and football star in 2007, but will only play football this season.
CJ Spiller and Jacoby Ford will be back returning kicks this season. The pair combined for 28 punt returns for 245 yards in 2007. On kickoffs, Spiller averaged 28.8 yards per return with two TDs, while Ford averaged 26.4 yards per return.
Outlook: Most experts believe the Tigers will win the ACC. Of course, the games must be played and the outcomes are to be determined. It seems that Tommy Bowden finally has a team with the right talent and personnel to win the league.
The schedule is mediocre with the toughest games being against Alabama to open the year, Florida State in Tallahassee, and the season-ending rivalry game at home with Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks.
If the Tigers manage to beat the Tide to open the year, it should be smooth sailing with four consecutive home games until a Thursday night date with Wake Forest at Groves Stadium—a place the Tigers have struggled recently.
Back-to-back weeks on the road at Boston College and Florida State in early November could provide a scare. However, if the team is rolling by this point, there may be no stopping them.
Of course, the Tigers face their worst enemy this season: themselves.
Clemson has been its own kryptonite for several years now, starting the season off great and being unable to finish, or vice versa. The upcoming season should be the year the Tigers break through and win the ACC Championship.
They could also be in the running for the National Championship game, as long as there are no slip-ups along the way, which Clemson has been notorious for.
Regular Season: 11-1 (7-1 ACC)
ACC Championship Game winner and FedEx Orange Bowl bound