Clemson's football schedule is particularly interesting this year, as there are a handful of challenging games on the slate including Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Florida State at home as well as road trips to Louisville and South Carolina. While none are as tough individually as Georgia in Athens or Florida State in Tallahassee - two games in which we gave low win probabilities last year - the total number of serious challenges appears greater.
Before delving into the details of the road ahead, let's see how we did a season ago.
|at Florida State||20%||25%||15%||15%||40%||10%||15%||10%||20%||19%|
|at Boston College||90%||85%||90%||85%||97%||70%||90%||90%||85%||87%|
|at Wake Forest||95%||90%||98%||90%||99%||90%||95%||90%||90%||93%|
|at Georgia Tech||85%||75%||70%||70%||91%||60%||90%||65%||80%||76%|
On aggregate, we did extremely well! Every game in which we gave over a 76% chance for a Clemson win they won and both games (UGA and FSU) in which we did not favor Clemson, the Tigers lost. Louisville and Georgia Tech were the tricky ones as we only gave our Tigers a 68% chance to beat Louisville, while giving a more confident 76% chance against Yellow Jackets. In fairness, the Louisville game was won by one yard and the Georgia Tech game was lost on one knee.
As for individual blogger predictions, though I was overconfident in getting our first win in Bobby Dodd since 2003, I was spot on with precisely 9.0 projected wins.Quacking Tiger and Metal Tiger were also spot on, each projecting 8.9 wins (I'll give them the 0.1 on rounding error!). Juan M. at Tomahawk Nation was also quite close with 8.8 projected wins. Robert Reinhard from Blogger So Dear (Wake Forest) and Joey Weaver from From the Rumble Seat (Georgia Tech) were a bit too pessimistic at just 7.9 and 8.3 projected wins respectively. Overall, our aggregate win total of 8.7 was awfully close.
Now onto this year.
We reassembled a similar crew and have once again went through the exercise of projecting Clemson's win likelihood against each opponent. With the accuracy in crowds theory, especially an "expert" crowd of SB Nation bloggers if you're willing to call us that, the aggregate column is most important. Take a look through the table, and then we'll break down the expectations and share some thoughts on each game.
|at Louisville (TH)||54%||60%||52%||55%||50%||55%||60%||50%||50%||54%|
|at NC State||85%||80%||80%||70%||64%||80%||90%||80%||60%||77%|
|at South Carolina||70%||63.17%||75%||70%||73%||65%||60%||65%||60%||67%|
All nine participating bloggers had Clemson somewhere between 8 1/2 and 9 1/2 wins with the aggregate projection right at 9 wins on the nose. With Deshaun Watson's health playing such a big role in how the season will go, it made for a difficult variable to factor in. Nevertheless, there was mostly consensus that nine wins was about right.
The schedule is ideal with no games as daunting as Clemson's 2014 trip to Athens, for which participating bloggers only gave the Tigers a 40% chance to win. There are certainly none as scary as the 2014 trek to Tallahassee which yielded just a 19% percent win likelihood score. (Those low percentages proved to be accurate, unfortunately.) Instead, the season best breaks down into three clusters.
There are four major challenges, four minor challenges, and four cake walks.
With aggregate win likelihood scores between 54%-59%, Louisville, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and Florida State present major challenges. Those numbers yield an expected 2.2-1.8 record across the four games. If Clemson manages to go 3-1, it'll be an impressive, but doable feat.
With win likelihood scores between 66%-81%, Boston College, NC State, Miami, and South Carolina provide lesser but still legitimate challenges. The numbers here yield an expected 2.9 wins. Less than three wins will be a disappointment. Three wins is most likely, but a perfect four for four is reasonable.
Finally, Wofford, Appalachian State, Syracuse, and Wake Forest were all given win likelihood scores over 91%. Losing any of these games would be a disappointment and something Clemson hasn't done in quite a while.
Now we'll delve into the details of each game.
Clemson is 11-3 all-time vs. Wofford, but hasn't lost one in the series since 1933. Since college football split into two divisions in 1978, Clemson has gone 29-0 against FCS foes. Wofford only went 6-5 last season, so it's hard to see the Tigers' perfect record against FCS opponents ending here.
Wofford is a run-heavy team that averaged 298 rushing yards per game last season (only 69 passing yards/game). Their defense was less impressive as they surrendered 330 yards per game to opponents. I expect they'll try to play keep away and they may find a little success with the run game, but they shouldn't be able to slow down a Watson-led offense enough to keep it competitive. They officially label their offense as a "triple-option or 'Wingbone' offensive scheme, so this may be a nice tune-up for the Georgia Tech game.
Bottom Line: Bloggers are exceedingly confident the Tigers will start 1-0.
Aggregate Win Likelihood: 100%
The competition begins to stiffen as Clemson takes on the Mountaineers from Boone, NC in the season's second week. No longer an FCS member, App State now has more scholarships and therefore more depth than did their famous 2007 team that knocked off #4 Michigan. They joined the Sun Belt along with Georgia Southern replacing schools that Conference USA lured away (because Conference USA had just been scalped the the AAC).
The transition for App State didn't start so well. They began last season 1-5, while their chief rival, Georgia Southern looked so much better. One of those five losses included a payback blowout at the hands of Michigan. They managed to turn things around and win their last six games to finish 7-5 (6-2).
The Mountaineers return 20 starters, the most in the Sun Belt and the nation. They had nearly 3,000 rushing yards a season ago, about 1,000 more than Clemson. Obviously, their schedule wasn't comparable, but they're much more balanced and had a bit more total yardage than the Tigers. I'm certainly not panicking about App State, but I do feel they're more in-line with the the challenge level of a Wake Forest or Syracuse than a Wofford. Underdog Dynasty gives some reasons for you to worry in there article here and ESPN's FPI projects them to finish around 10-wins.
Bottom Line: They may present a more onerous task than the Wofford Terriers, but bloggers would be extremely surprised to see an upset.
Aggregate Win Likelihood: 97%
Louisville should take a step back from a year ago as they return only nine starters. Star WR DeVante Parker is now on the Miami Dolphins. Two offensive lineman were drafted in the third round (can you even imagine?). Their defense had six players drafted, including Thorpe Award winner Gerrod Holliman, who led the ACC with 14 interceptions.
So with all the losses, why do you see so many win likelihood numbers hovering between 50%-60%?
The ACC did Clemson no favors by giving them a Thursday night road game in week three without the typical preceding bye week. Instead, they get a worthless bye after the weekday game, making for an especially long lay-off before Notre Dame.
The one-yard win last season seemed to prove that they can compete on our level. Now, traveling up there for the first time surely makes the task harder. Clemson Kicker Ammon Lakkip will be suspended. Add to that the odd scheduling making the travel day an important lost day of practice and Clemson is at a notable disadvantage. Reggie Bonnafon should own the QB position now and with further maturation they should see improved QB play. Bobby Petrino will have them well coached and the crowd should be rocking in what is by far their best home game (neither Auburn, FSU, nor Kentucky go to Louisville).
Bottom Line: It'll be extremely hard for Clemson to start 4-0, and two-thirds of our contributors feel this is where they are most likely to trip up in that stretch.
Aggregate Win Likelihood: 54%
Following the Tigers brutal 2014 loss to FSU, the Tigers regrouped and closed out the year 9-1. Notre Dame did quite the opposite. The Golden Domers entered Doak Campbell at 6-0 and left with a loss.They followed that with a 2-4 finish to end the season with five losses. The Irish allowed at least 28 points in each of their last eight games.
So why should you worry about Notre Dame?
For one, they return 19 starters. Their first team defense lists all juniors and seniors! They start one sophomore on offense - rest are juniors and seniors. Malik Zaire, a former 4-star dual-threat QB, takes the helm with Everett Golson transferring to FSU. He'll have plenty of talented, experienced targets. As far as roster management and expectations, this is "the year" for Notre Dame. Brian Kelly really can't afford to have a letdown now, as he'll lose so much after 2015.
With such talent and experience returning, it's not a stretch to think they'll improve and give Clemson a real challenge in their first trip to Death Valley since the 1977. Are they as well coached, tough, disciplined, and consistent as Clemson? Probably not, but from 2010-2014 Notre Dame has had a higher average star rating (Rivals) than Clemson with every single recruiting class. It's easy to forget about other team's talent when you have guys like Christian Wilkins, Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud, and Albert Huggins joining your program, but they're very talented too and more experienced.
Bottom Line: Notre Dame brings a veteran group of highly-recruited players into Clemson in a toss-up game that goes advantage Clemson due to the raucous Death Valley environment.
Aggregate Win Likelihood: 57%
Since joining the ACC, Georgia Tech has won 10+ games on four occasions. In the three occasions prior to 2014 (1990, 1998, and 2009) they've won an average of three fewer games in the succeeding season (1991: 8 wins, 1999: 8 wins, 2010: 6 wins). Coach Paul Johnson doesn't seem overly impressed by his team so far in practice and seems to be tempering expectations. I'll bite and say they regress by about three wins and finish with about eight (regular season wins). I wouldn't be surprised to see Tech take a step back in 2015, especially with their toughest in the ACC schedule.
Given Clemson's history against Tech and their style of play, this matchup is always scary. Additionally, I'm a bit worried about facing the triple option with such a green defensive line, however I'm betting on that group staying healthy and Kevin Dodd panning out.
Bottom Line: If Watson is healthy and the D-line doesn't disappoint, this should be a Tiger win. It's a scary one to be sure, but the least daunting of the tough three game stretch where the Tigers play Louisville, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech consecutively.
BC returns the fewest starters in the ACC (tied with Louisville), and doesn't recruit at a particularly high level, yet they are still considered a tough out. More than anything, that's a kudos to Steve Addazio and what he's done in his first two years there.
The Eagles will break in a new QB behind a inexperienced offensive line. They return running back Jon Hilliman, and have made a living with a solid run game and plucky defense, but will there be consistent holes to run through with no offensive linemen returning? They also lose three off their defensive line. Unlike Clemson, it's hard to imagine they've recruited enough depth to take those kind of losses in stride. They're well coached and you certainly have to respect what Addazio has done there.
Bottom Line: Their toughness makes them scary, because they can give anybody a run for their money, but it's unlikely they knock off Clemson in Death Valley.
Aggregate Win Likelihood: 81%
Sophomore QB Brad Kaaya gives the 'Canes hope after a very nice freshman campaign. The returning QB threw for 3,198 yards and 26 TDs as a true freshman and improved throughout the year.as he threw nine of his 12 interceptions in the first six games. Now we'll see if he can continue that progress behind an offensive line that lost three starters.
Yes, they lost all-time great RB Duke Johnson (Browns) and electric WR Phillip Dorsett (Colts), but they recruit well at the skill positions and should be fine. The concern is primarily the O-line and of course the defense which allowed 30 points to Virginia, 35 to Pittsburgh, and lost star MLB Denzel Perryman (Chargers).
Bottom Line: Are they talented? Sure, but they have given us so many reasons to count them out. I'm less concerned about this game than some of our other bloggers - particularly Kraken - but as a whole this matchup has our blogger panel worried more than any other outside of the big four (i.e., UL, ND, GT, FSU).
Aggregate Win Likelihood: 66%
at NC State
This one has the makings for a shootout. Crazy things happen in Carter-Finley Stadium and that's where this year's edition of the Textile Bowl will be hosted. NC State has some firepower on offense with nine starters returning. Jacoby Brissett has proved to be a huge addition as a transfer from Florida. He's an athletic QB who can throw on the run. Shadrach Thornton is one of the better running backs in the ACC and David Grinnage is solid at TE.
Conversely, their defense only brings back five starters from a unit that was not good as season ago. They allowed 30+ points in each of their losses including 56 to FSU, 41 to Clemson, and 30 to Louisville. It's unfortunate they're in the Atlantic, because they're a clear #4 in the division. If they were in the Coastal, they may be favored to win it.
Bottom Line: Clemson has won 10 of 11 in the series and the Wolfpack likely will not have the defensive prowess necessary to slow down an offense with a healthy O-line and Deshaun Watson.
Aggregate Win likelihood: 77%
Obviously, this is the biggest game on the schedule. The winner will have a huge leg up in the ACC Atlantic race -though Louisville will still have something to say about it. Interestingly, our blogger panel is slightly more confident in a Clemson win here than at Louisville in Week 3. Both opponents lost loads of talent to the NFL, but with Florida State's recruiting prowess, they're likely to reload rather than rebuild. The 'Noles are the more talented team.
If the 2013 beat down followed by the flukiest of losses in 2014 didn't break your confidence... good for you. It'll probably be a while before I "expect" a win over Florida State.
Still, the game is in Clemson and the Tigers do have a few roster advantages. At QB Florida State landed Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson. He certainly can be dynamic, but is turnover prone. Their other option, Sean Maguire, is very pedestrian. If Watson is healthy (if he's not you can forget about this one), Clemson has a big advantage at QB. At WR, Clemson boasts likely the best WR corps in the country. Mike Williams and Artavis Scott make an excellent duo. If Charone Peake can stay healthy, you've got three top-notch receivers. True freshmen Ray Ray McCloud and Deon Cain should be ridiculous in the two-deep - particularly by the time FSU rolls around - and there are other former 4-star receivers I haven't even mentioned. Meanwhile, FSU lost their top two receiving threats and will rely on Travis Rudolph to carry their group.
Clemson's suspended kicker will be back by this game, while the status of FSU's star running back is still unknown after he allegedly struck a woman just days after a teammate punched a woman in a bar.
Of course, we're still talking about Florida State, and even when they have to look to youngsters to fill the void, we are almost always talking about a four or five star youngster.
Clemson's #1 in the nation defense lost a lot. Their two best defensive linemen from 2014 now play for the Atlanta Falcons, and three others are also in the NFL. The starters on the defensive line will be just fine, but the depth is questionable as they'll be relying on quite a few freshmen. The Tigers are hurting at linebacker. Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward have moved on to the NFL. Chris Register transitioned to DE. Korie Rogers quit football, and Kendall Joseph had a (somewhat minor) shoulder injury.
Additionally, nickelback Korrin Wiggins tore his ACL and CB Mark Fields broke his hand. With so much seemingly going wrong this offseason, it's hard to look this far ahead and call this much more than a toss-up. There are too many players that are nearly irreplaceable (e.g., Deshaun Watson, Mitch Hyatt, Ben Boulware, Shaq Lawson, etc.) to give Clemson a substantial win likelihood percentage. That's why I have Florida State as a toss-up at 50%.
Syracuse took a step back last year finishing with a paltry 3-9 record. They scored fewer than 21 points in each of their nine losses.
After a promising sophomore year, QB Terrel Hunt regressed as a junior throwing 1 TD and 4 picks before an injury forced him to miss the final seven games of the year. He'll return next season on an offense that brings back eight total starters. There should be at least marginal improvement there, but with Scott Shafer running the show, how much can you really expect on offense? For goodness sake, Two of their first team O-linemen are listed at 266lbs and 276lbs respectively.
Even if their offense inches forward, the defense could be a disaster. Only three starters return from what was a fairly good unit. I expect them to decline as much on defense as they improve on offense and again miss a bowl game. The prognosis is so bleak that their blog is asking fans who they'll be cheering for this season, since Syracuse obviously won't be in the national championship hunt.
Bottom Line: Although road trips, particularly ones spanning 800+ miles, have their traps, Syracuse doesn't have the talent or coaching to pull off the upset. On the road you can't count anything out, but the blogger panel is more confident in a Clemson W here than any other road contest.
Aggregate Win likelihood: 91%
Wake's offense was historically bad last season. John Wolford was on his rear more than any other QB and their yards per rush were 0.7 yards worse than any other team. ESPN has quoted coach Dave Clawson as saying he's seen high school O-lines bigger than what the Deacons had. You have to appreciate the refreshing honesty he brought to that program in the doldrums.
Their defense, especially the secondary was actually very good, but they lost some key pieces to the NFL. This year could actually be a step back before they begin to really improve under Dave Clawson. The offense should improve as they've found a legitimate star TE in Cam Serigne. You probably best remember him for getting lit up by Robert Smith, but he is actually quite the player.
Bottom Line: All 7% of win likelihood bloggers gave Wake Forest in this game must be betting on a Deshaun Watson injury. Wake may be the easiest FBS team on the schedule and pessimistic scores from the Kraken and Dan Rubin drive down what is still a pretty confident 93%. Barring a late season collection of injuries, this should be a chance to get the starters out early and be rested for the Palmetto Bowl. No excuses to lose this one.
Aggregate Win likelihood: 93%
at South Carolina
South Carolina has really taken a step back from when their program peaked three or so years ago. The media only picked them to finish fourth in their division this season.
They've brought in some JUCO players supplement an abysmal defensive line as well as a quality safety from the University of Kansas via graduate transfer. Considering just how terrible the defensive was last season (allowing 36.8 points per game to SEC opponents) they're sure to improve.
Conversely, the offense was quite good. Dylan Thompson threw for 3,564 yards (For reference, Jacoby Brissett passed for 2,606). Mike Davis fell just 18 yards short being a 1,000 yard rusher for the second consecutive year. They both headed to San Francisco to start NFL careers leaving the offensive to find new weapons. They bring back star WR Pharoh Cooper, but the offensive may regress a bit.
Bottom Line: Anything can happen in a rivalry game, and we're certainly not writing off an SEC team that held a five game win streak over the Tigers just a season ago, but Clemson is the better team. It's far from a given, but no blogger gave Clemson worse than a 60% chance.
Aggregate Win likelihood: 67%
ESPN calls nine wins the bare minimum, which I love to hear - even if I don't totally believe it. With the realistic and scary possibility of injury weighing in and the lack of depth that makes that so threatening, nine wins was our panel's projection. If Watson suffers a serious injury (God forbid) and misses significant time, it could be a bit worse.
QB isn't the only position where Clemson is thin. The starting 11 on defense looks solid, but there is little depth in the front seven. DJ Reader's leave of absence further exasperates that and will make the Louisville game that much tougher (Note: the DJ Reader news broke after the completion of this article, but I believe he will return in time for the Notre Dame game, so not much changes except another small hit to our chances in Louisville). Additionally, the offensive line is awfully thin after Isaiah Battle left for the supplemental draft and thrust true freshman, Mitch Hyatt, into the starting lineup with very little depth behind him.
With all that negativity and hedging out of the way, let's examine the upside. If the Tigers manage to stay healthy, and their depth issues are not exposed, they will have an excellent shot to exceed our projection of nine wins. The Tigers are rightfully the spot on favorite to win the ACC. With 10+ wins, a berth in the Peach Bowl or even the Orange Bowl (CFB Playoff) are realistic goals with a healthy roster, particularly a healthy Deshaun Watson.