Clemson was in control. Leading Auburn 17-0 just before the half, the Tigers looked like the team we had been waiting on ever since their placement near the top of the polls prior to 2009. But the '09 squad ended up being smashed in their opener by the eventual national champs, and never recovered. After Kyle Parker received a brutal helmet-to-the-back in the 3rd quarter vs. the eventual national champs, neither did he.
The Tigers went on to drop three straight and seven of their final 11 contests. In essence, the Parker injury and the ensuing fallout served as a microcosm of Clemson football since, well, as long as I can remember. Which is another way of saying that Clemson hasn't won much of anything since the late 80's, despite a superb fan base, a constant influx of talented players and an SEC-like atmosphere in Death Valley.
But, with an ever-explosive offense and without the burden of such high expectations, 2011 sets up as what could be a brand new chapter in Clemson football. One that is written about exceeding expectations, rather than failing to meet expectations.
Two years ago, Chad Morris was coaching high school football in Texas. Now, he's following the Gus Malzahn blue-print for, "How to go from the preps to the promised land." If he can help to turn things around in Clemson, his rise may end up being even more meteoric than that of the Auburn offensive coordinator.
Tajh Boyd? See: Cam Newton. Because, that will be the goal for Morris and head coach Dabo Swinney heading into the 2011 campaign. The offense will be very similar to the one we saw down in Auburn last fall, and Tajh Boyd possesses many of the desirable physical traits in comparison with the quarterback of that offense. The onus falls on Boyd to perform as such.
The Tigers will need to replace last season's offensive MVP, tackle Chris Hairston. But, the remaining four starters along the offensive line all return for 2011, providing a solid bedrock for the offense.
There is choice talent at the running back position, with Andre Ellington returning for his sophomore season, along with the addition of incoming freshman Mike Bellamy. Ellington battled a foot strain last season and missed some time. But, the junior-to-be was still able to post 686 rushing yards at a clip of 5.8 YPC. As for Bellamy, he just needs to add weight to his frame. The top prep rusher out of running back rich Florida gives the Tigers a bona fide home-run threat.
The receiving corps is steady, with DeAndre Hopkins, Jaron Brown, and tight end Dwayne Allen back in the fold. Add in 5-star recruit Sammy Watkins, and Boyd looks to have a cupboard full of weapons.
This defense has an ironic mixture of talent and gaping holes.
Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell are gone from the corners. Cornerstone DeAndre McDaniel vacates the strong safety spot. Most crucially, Da'Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins will no longer be up front.
Talent remains along the defensive line, however, where veteran Andre Branch returns, and junior Malliciah Goodman is saddled with the task of replacing Bowers. Brandon Thompson is the cog in the middle, where he will be joined by senior Rennie Moore.
The strength of this Tigers defense appears to be in the linebacking core. Quandon Christian and Corico Hawkins—who may be Clemson's best player—return. They'll be accompanied by junior Jonathan Willard and, perhaps more importantly, a wave of prep talent that includes two of the nation's top ranked recruits in Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
Jonathan Meeks replaces McDaniel, and should form a nice safety tandem with incumbent free safety Rashard Hall. Xavier Brewer and Coty Sensabaugh are both experienced at corner. Brewer looks to start at the field corner spot, but it may very well be redshirt freshman Bashaud Breeland taking over at the boundary corner after a stellar spring performance.
For a team that lost six of their games by an average of 5.1 PPG, the lackluster performance in the kicking game was back breaking.
Walk-on Chandler Catanzaro is back as Clemson's best option at place kicker. However, he has ambitions of expunging the memories of a year ago. Senior Dawson Zimmerman will handle the punting duties.
The return game has the potential to be electric, with the likelihood that Mike Bellamy will return punts, along with Andre Ellington as the featured kick returner.
Nov. 26 at South Carolina
The Gamecocks embarrassed Clemson in Death Valley over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, leaving the Tiger faithful with very little to be thankful for on the gridiron.
Clemson will have revenge on their minds when they head into Williams-Brice Stadium this season, and if things go right for the two South Carolina schools, the matchup could have BCS implications.
Chad Morris' Golden Hurricane attack was the only offense in the FBS to rank in the Top 15 in both rushing and passing in 2010.
This bodes well for a number of members of Morris' Clemson Tiger offense heading into 2011.
DeAndre Hopkins led the Tigers in receiving a season ago, and his numbers are sure to improve in his sophomore season, even while sharing balls with Jaron Brown, Dwayne Allen, and freshman Sammy Watkins. His true value lies in the fact that he will be available into the latest rounds of the draft, making him a low risk/high reward pick.
Andre Ellington should see an increase in both, workload and offensive versatility, making him a much coveted choice for one of the RB spots. Having a scat back like Mike Bellamy to spell him should increase his durability without decreasing his touches from inside the 10. Ellington looks be available as late as the 4th round of most drafts.
Tajh Boyd could turn out to be the sleeper of your draft. Odds are that he'll be available deep into the later rounds, as no fewer than 20 QB's are likely to be chosen ahead of him. But with a Malzahn-esque system in place, Boyd has the potential to do what Cam Newton did for fantasy owners a season ago.
Tajh Boyd controls the ceiling for Clemson in 2011. If the highly touted sophomore is able to run Morris' offense as effectively as GJ Kinne did a season ago, the Tigers will be in business. Clemson surrounds Boyd with as much talent and athleticism as anyone in the ACC, and one of the most innovative offensive minds in college football. He has no excuse to fail. Defensively, they could take a step backwards after losing so many key components. But, even if the defense slips a little, the offense has the tools to carry the load.
Clemson is flying in under the radar, but I'm not sleeping on them.
Projection: 9-3, (6-2)