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ACC Season Preview: Clemson

By Carlos Pineda
SouthernPigskin.com
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If all things go according to plan in the ACC, Clemson will be playing in a BCS bowl game.

Coach: Dabo Swinney (40-21, 5th full season; 40-21 overall)

2012 record: 11-2 (7-1 in ACC; T-1st Atlantic Division)

Looking back: The Clemson Tigers closed the 2012 season with perhaps the program's biggest win in recent years, a thrilling 25-24 win over SEC foe LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve. Looking to build off of an incredibly successful 2011 campaign that saw the Tigers win the ACC crown for the first time in 20 years, an early season loss to Florida State proved to be enough to keep them from playing in Charlotte again. Despite this, Clemson won seven straight games to tie for a share of the Atlantic Division title. The Tigers finished with an 11-2 record and had back-to-back seasons with at least 10 wins for the first time since the 1987-90 era. 

Offensive starters returning: 6

Defensive starters returning: 7

Key losses: DeAndre Hopkins, WR; Brandon Ford, TE; Andre Ellington, RB

Top returnees: Sammy Watkins, WR; Tajh Boyd, QB; Spencer Shuey, LB

Strengths: Senior Tajh Boyd emerged as one of the nation's top quarterbacks last season, earning ACC Player of the Year honors. Owning 51 Clemson records, Boyd completed 287 of 427 passes for 3,896 yards, 36 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He also had 514 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Entering his junior year, receiver Sammy Watkins is looking to regain his freshman form. In 2011, the speedy WR burst onto the scene with 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. Last year, he played in just 10 of 13 games, but had 57 receptions for 708 yards and three touchdowns.

Clemson's defense returns seven starters, including linebacker Spencer Shuey. In seven starts, Shuey made 93 tackles, second on the team to only defensive end Vic Beasley.   

Weaknesses: On offense, the Tigers are without the services of running back Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins, both of whom led their respective units. Ellington rushed for 1,081 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Roderick McDowell will look to fill the gap. He rushed for 450 yards and five touchdowns on 83 carries last season.

Hopkins accounted for half of Boyd's passing touchdowns last year. He had 82 receptions for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns. Hopkins averaged 17.1 yards per catch. In addition to Watkins, junior Adam Humphries will expand his role as one of Boyd's go-to targets in 2013. Humphries had 41 catches for 280 yards and a touchdown in 2012.

Clemson's pass defense ranked 71st in the nation a year ago, averaging 240.3 yards per game. With only safety Travis Blanks returning as a starter in the secondary, things could get dicey when the Tigers open up the season against Georgia's Aaron Murray on Aug. 31. 

Outlook: Clemson feels it's ready to take that next step. While winning the the ACC is a primary goal, so too is being a serious contender in the national title hunt. Barring any hiccups in the ACC, only Georgia and South Carolina stand in the way for the Tigers. Clemson has also lost four straight games against the Gamecocks.

2013 Schedule

Aug. 31: Georgia, 8 p.m. ABC

Sept. 7: South Carolina State, 12:30 p.m.

Sept. 19: at NC State, 7:30 ESPN

Sept. 28: Wake Forest

Oct. 5: at Syracuse

Oct. 12: Boston College

Oct. 19: Florida State

Oct. 26: at Maryland

Nov. 2: at Virginia

Nov. 14: Georgia Tech, 7:30 ESPN

Nov. 23: The Citadel

Nov. 30: at South Carolina

*Bold indicates home game

Prediction: Clemson will have another successful season under Dabo Swinney, but will fall short of playing for a national title in Pasadena. A win against Georgia is attainable, especially the first game of the season and in front of 81,500 fans in Death Valley. On the road at South Carolina is a different story. In the four consecutive losses to their in-state rival, the Tigers have been outscored 124-54. If all things go according to plan in the ACC, Clemson will be playing in a BCS bowl game.

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Carlos Pineda - Carlos Pineda is a featured writer for Southern Pigskin. He covered the UCF Knights football team for Florida Today in 2010. Carlos' work has been published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel and Orlando Business Journal. He attended the University of Central Florida. Follow Carlos on Twitter @CarlosFPineda.