Sept. 3rd - @Auburn Tigers
Sept. 10th - Troy Trojans
Sept. 17th - South Carolina State Bulldogs
Sept. 22nd - @ Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Thurs.)
Oct. 1st - Louisville Cardinals
Oct. 7th - @Boston College (Fri.)
Oct. 15th - NC State Wolfpack
Oct. 22nd - BYE
Oct. 29th - @Florida State Seminoles
Nov. 5th - Syracuse Orange
Nov 12th - Pittsburgh Panthers
Nov. 19th - @Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Nov 26th - South Carolina Gamecocks
We've seen how the randomness of the schedule can have a meaningful impact on outcomes. Last year, we benefited from avoiding Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta and Doak Campbell in Tallahassee. The Notre Dame game was impacted by a driving rain to which Clemson adjusted more effectively than the Golden Domers. The National Championship occurred while Mac Alexander was struggling with a lower body injury. All these things impact outcomes and while we don't know exactly how they'll break this year, we'll take a look at who we play and where we play them and break it down.
Below we split Clemson's schedule down into three-parts: Challenges (challenging games that Clemson will need to play well and avoid bad luck to win), Taking Care of Business (games that Clemson should win if they take care of business, but wouldn't be the upset of the century if they lost. We respect these opponents), and Gimmes (These games could be won even if Clemson rested key starters. I am not concerned).
(Games listed in order or perceived difficulty)
at Florida State: This is by far the games that worries me most.
I see the year Ohio State had, likely one of the four best teams in the country, and how dramatically their year was shaped by one regular season game against their divisional rival. Had they not lost to Michigan State, they would have likely defeated Iowa in the B1G Championship game and earned a top 2 seed in the College Football Playoff. Instead, they didn't get an opportunity to play for their conference championship and received an at-large bid to the Fiesta Bowl. While impressive, I'm all but certain it feels hollow to their fans who had enjoyed a national championship just the season prior.
A loss at Florida State would give the Tigers a similar fate. They certainly could win in Doak Campbell for the first time since 2006, but I'm not banking on it. How FSU's QB situation is shaking out when Clemson comes to town will have a big impact on this outcome.
at Auburn: In Rivals' recruiting rankings, Auburn finished inside the top 10 in 2013, 2014, and 2015, topping Clemson in the first two of those seasons. While they have been fairly unimpressive the past two seasons, the year prior to that they battled Jameis Winston in a National Championship. They have the talent and will represent a significant challenge with the game being played in Jordan Hare Stadium. You never know what Auburn team will show up from year to year, but if it's one of their stronger editions, this will be a battle.
at Georgia Tech (Th.): Throughout Georgia Tech's 2014 Orange Bowl run, I decried the Yellow Jackets as overrated. When they lost to Duke and UNC I reveled in my genius... until they beat Clemson, UGA, and Mississippi State. I was equally surprised last year when they dropped all the way to three wins (we expected a reasonable decline to about eight wins)! Like Auburn, the Yellow Jackets represent another unpredictable foe. They could be a push over, but since the Tigers haven't won in Bobby Dodd since 2003, we can't count on it. With a short week preceding the Thursday night game, this one has the making of an upset, especially if the Tigers beat Auburn.
Louisville: The only home game to make the list of major challenges, Louisville is primed for a big season. They struggled for much of last season, particularly on offense, but sparked optimism in their Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M. In that win, the Cardinals seemed to settle on a QB for 2016 as Lamar Jackson passed for 227 yards and ran for 226 yards. This is Clemson's only big home test.
Taking Care of Business
Pittsburgh: It is always nice to welcome a new opponent and fan base into Death Valley. Hopefully, we'll give a proper Clemson welcome to the Panthers and their fans as they come to Clemson for the first time since joining the ACC. The Panthers are a quality opponent, but don't have the talent the Tigers do. If the Tigers play their A-game they should emerge victorious. Hopefully the Panthers leave with a loss and a fan base impressed by Clemson's tradition and class, much like the Cardinals after their first visit to Clemson.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have fallen back to earth after a truly impressive four year run. The Tigers will look to win their third in a row against the Cocks and at home, should be a strong favorite. South Carolina will likely improve with a stable coaching staff, but they may be ready to settle into being a borderline bowl team for a long time to come.
NC State: Clemson fans' always seem to fret over the Textile Bowl, but almost without exception the Tigers win. Sure, the 'Pack keeps it close more often than not, but they generally lose. The Tigers were 7-3 against the Wolfpack during the Danny Ford era. They are an even better 19-6 since then. Best yet, the Tigers are 11-1 in their past 12 contests against NC State (55-28-1 overall). If the Tigers are sloppy, this game is lose-able, but it's certainly a game they should win.
at Boston College (Fri.): Weekday road games that aren't in Winston-Salem are tough. Boston College is fairly inept though so even if the Tigers struggle like FSU did in their Friday night game in Chestnut Hill a season ago, they should still be able to take care of business.
at Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons are doing the right things. Their recruiting is improving and they are becoming more and more competitive. The game being played in North Carolina should help them keep the game competitive, but the talent gap is too large for them to have a realistic shot to beat Clemson without everything breaking their way.
Syracuse: I forgot what the phrase is that STS commenters like to throw around about Syracuse, but I'm sure it applies here. I've been pretty harsh on the Orange saying they needed to fire their coach as he was not only representing the program poorly, but not a competent winner. They did and Dino Babers seems like a decent Dave Clawson type hire, but they don't have the talent or moxy to be competitive with a healthy Tigers team in Death Valley.
Troy: A middle of the pack (3-5) Sun Belt team shouldn't pose a serious threat against a dialed in Tiger team, but there's never a guarantee that the Tigers will be dialed in.
SC State: SC State represents a fairly big step down from Troy. The Tigers should be able to knock of these bulldogs with back-ups.
We will get into detailed projections for each game when the in-depth season preview rolls around. This is intended just to hold you over until then so I'll end with a discussion starter.
Road Trip Rankings
The Tigers home schedule is a bit bland this year, which of course implies that the road schedule is not. Three of the four games listed in the "Challenges" section are road games. Auburn is the best trip of them. Similar to Clemson, they have expansive tailgating and all the pomp and pageantry you could ask for. A fair warning, it's very hot and flat so don't make the mistake I did in 2010 and head to the Plains without a tailgate tent to keep you cool.
Florida State has a beautiful campus which probably doesn't get the credit it deserves. That said, the lone trip I took there was marred by a great many rude or otherwise unruly Seminole fans and then a gut wrenching loss. I haven't considered going back after that trip.
As an Atlanta resident, the Georgia Tech game is my favorite Clemson rivalry. The 2006 Clemson win over GT with College Gameday in town was the first Clemson victory I experienced in Death Valley. I haven't missed a Clemson vs. GT game since! The Tigers haven't won in Bobby Dodd since 2003, so watching a win unfold would be mighty sweet. If the game was on a weekend, it'd make a great road trip from folks wanting to visit the College Football Hall of Fame, the GA Aquarium, and some of Atlanta's great breweries (Red Brick, Monday Night, Sweet Water), but it is a Thursday making it a less than ideal trek for many.
Boston College and Wake Forest comprise the remaining road games. Boston College on a Friday could make for a fun trip. An early morning flight to Boston and a short day tailgating should be followed by a Tiger win. That would leave a full Saturday to explore Boston. Unfortunately, the Red Sox regular season will be over by the time Clemson comes to town, but I'm sure Boston has enough to entertain one for a day. Winston-Salem is more of a pure football trip. If you're able to do the whole trip in a day without a hotel it may be worth it, but Winston doesn't offer much to explore for out-of-town tourists.
What do you all think? What games worry you? Which ones excite you? Where will you be traveling this year to support our Tigers?