In this article, we delve into each game as we breakdown Clemson’s 2016 schedule.
Last year we looked at returning starters as just one measure to help us project some of our opponents. Using this metric, we successfully projected Louisville and Boston College as teams that would take a step back. Conversely, Appalachian State had 20 returning starters and we projected them to be very strong for a Sun Belt team. Using returning starters, we also noted Notre Dame would be strong, and NC State would have a strong offense and a weak defense all these predictions broke our way.
Auburn, despite last year's struggles, only has 11 returning starters according to Phil Steele. It’s not a strangely tiny number (like Ohio State with only six), but coming off a disappointing season, you’d expect to see a lot of highly recruited young starters returning. That’s not the case.
Auburn ranked 40th in S&P+ offense and 34th in S&P+ defense. Jeremy Johnson, who threw 17+ passes in 7 different games, finished with 10 TDs and 7 INTs. John Franklin III originally enrolled at Florida State, but left for JUCO before joining Auburn's program this year. He will compete with Johnson and Sean White for the starting role. Should be win, he'll provide a speedy option that forces defenses to account for his speed (Sean White is favored as of this writing).
Clemson DE Austin Bryant will miss the opener with a foot injury, which opens up some potential opportunities for Auburn to attack the edge, but there’s a reason some experts such as those at Athlon Sports on the Cover 2 Podcast have picked Auburn to finish last in the SEC West. With an uncertain situation at QB and attrition from dismissals and injuries at RB, Auburn is not in a great position for a huge rebound season.
In the Sun Belt Conference, only Georgia State returns more starters than Troy, but the Trojans only won four games a season ago, and failed to stay within 21 points of any of the three P5 opponents they faced. They certainly have more firepower (and more depth) than an FCS team, but they shouldn't improve enough to give Clemson a major scare.
SC State finished 4th in the MEAC last season. The Tigers have never lost to an FCS opponent. Stay healthy, get young players reps, and prep for the triple-option on a short week. That’s what week 3 is all about.
at Georgia Tech (TH)
Nobody returns fewer starters in the ACC than Georgia Tech! Yes, Duke and Georgia Tech only return 11 starters each. Tech returns just five defensive starters on a defense that was only 63rd in the S&P+ rankings a year ago. From the Rumble Seat explained:
Many unknown quantities will be asked to step into starring roles. If nothing clicks, this could be one of the worst defenses in the ACC, which would force the offense to return to 2014 levels to keep games competitive.
Losing starting DT Adam Gotis will hurt, but losing both starting CBs and both starting safeties may be too much for the Yellow Jackets to overcome.
On offense they return QB Justin Thomas. They were so devastated by injuries last season it's hard to look at returning starters because nobody seemed to stay in the starting lineup. Their offense may improve, but their defense seems unlikely to do so and as such, achieving anything more than a .500 season and bowl berth would be surprising (coming off a 3-9) season.
This is finally the year Clemson goes to Atlanta and beats the Yellow Jackets. Don't miss it!
Louisville on the other hand is primed to come into Death Valley and challenge the Tigers. Their offense struggled through the early part of last season, but found their legs down the stretch. Lamar Jackson showed the nation just what he could do in the Music City Bowl when he torched Texas A&M for 227 passing yards and 226 rushing yards, with four total touchdowns. That offense returns 10 starters including Jackson. All of Jackson's key receivers and running backs return for support, and the offensive line should improve with four returning starters. The Louisville offense is ready to take major strides.
The defense returns eight starters and was fortunate to have some potential NFL early departures decide to return. They host Florida State in week 3 of the season, and later head to Clemson and Houston. They have a real opportunity to win one or even two of those games three games. It would not surprise me if they beat either Florida State or Clemson, and made the top of the Atlantic Division topsy-turvy.
at Boston College (FRI)
Boston College's offense was stunted by a multitude of injuries which left them with nowhere near the depth needed to survive. While their defense among the nation’s best, their offense was the very worst.
They've made some major changes bringing in a new offensive coordinator and starting QB. Scott Loeffler, who was the OC on the three win 2012 Auburn team and the past few VT offenses, will implement a pro-style offense. Fortunately, he'll have a graduate transfer QB from Kentucky, Patrick Towles, to run the offense. Jon Hilliman, their very effective RB returns from a foot fracture. The Eagles were second in the conference in rushing when he suffered the injury, but were woeful without him.
BC has moved QB Jeff Smith to slot WR where he has an opportunity to contribute and mend a team weakness. They get their key RB back from injury, and move to a new offense with a new QB to run it. Meanwhile they return 8 starters on offense. Everything went wrong for the BC offense last season and while I'm not particularly optimistic about the Loeffler hire long-term, they should have more to work with than a season ago. I expect their offense to improve and their defense to again be stout (though likely not quite as dominant).
As their offense moves from horrendous to mediocre and their defense remains elite, they'll present more of a challenge to the Tigers. Nevertheless, I would be very shocked if Clemson didn't extend their five game win streak against Boston College this season.
Every year people say we should worry about NC State. Every year people say they give us trouble. In the last 12 years, they've only closed the deal and actually beat Clemson once. They haven't won in Clemson since 2002.
Jacoby Brissett, who had 253 passing yards, three passing TDs and a rushing TD against Clemson last season is now on the New England Patriots’ roster. A redshirt sophomore with little experience, Jalan McClendon, is competing to take over for Brissett. He was a 24/7 Composite 4-star out of Charlotte.
They return a great RB in Matt Dayes and an excellent, underrated TE in Jaylen Samuels, but I don't see a compelling reason why - barring significant injuries - this game should be much different than the last six Textile Bowls in Clemson.
at Florida State
Florida State is going to be back with a vengeance after a 10-win "rebuilding" campaign. Their season ended with a disappointing Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to the Group of Five (though likely soon to be Big 12) Houston Cougars.
According to analyst Bud Elliott, there are starters on last year’s team at risk of losing playing time to younger players. These are starters from a 10-win team who likely improved throughout the year and offseason! This is most discussed at QB, where Deondre Francois, a redshirt freshman, has taken the job from the injured (foot) Sean Maguire (and may have taken it regardless of injury). It wasn’t too long ago that we discounted Jameis Winston due to his inexperience only to witness him demolish Clemson in Death Valley.
If he wasn’t in line to win the QB job already, the injury to Maguire all but ensures Francois will have big game experience before playing Clemson. Maguire should be healthy by then and serve as a reliable back-up should Francois struggle.
Florida State’s O-line is expected to be improved as is Dalvin Cook’s health - a scary combination of upgrades! This year’s game is in Doak Campbell, making the challenge even greater. Fortunately, the Tigers now have the horses to battle with National Championship level teams so it’s truly a toss-up.
An anonymous ACC coach said:
"Obviously Dino Babers is coming in there and they're going to run the Baylor offense. I think they're just short across the board talent-wise, but obviously the most important thing will be identifying their quarterback."
It's a solid hire, one of many in the ACC, and the conference seems poised to really take a big step forward. He'll have a lot of work to do before becoming a solid, competitive opponent though. They finished just 71st in the S&P+ rankings last year. They have a relatively experienced team, returning 15 starters but their recruiting has not produced classes inside the top 50 so actually beating a team like Clemson or FSU in their home stadium seems extremely unlikely. They should improve as a program over the next few years though. Their coaching staff indeed appears upgraded.
Clemson will host the Panthers for the first time since they joined the ACC, and they'll offer one of Clemson's better home contests. While their star player, Tyler Boyd, is gone after being a second round selection by the Cincinnati Bengals, they bring back 15 starters including eight on offense. One of those starters is returning QB Nathan Peterman. Peterman was a graduate transfer from Tennessee. He took the starting job away from Chad Voytik and started the final 11 games a season ago, with an impressive 61.5% completion percentage. He'll need to spread the ball around more without Boyd, but they'll likely lean on a rushing attack as much as possible.
James Connor will return after missing last season with a tragic combo of torn knee ligaments and then Hodgkin lymphoma. His successful return will be one of the better ACC storylines. According to Athlon Sports:
"Pittsburgh returns four starters on the offensive line. Additionally, tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith is back after missing all of 2015 due to injury. The Panthers should have one of the top offensive lines in the ACC next year."
Pittsburgh may find success by pounding the rock, but against Clemson's world-class DT rotation, I'm not sure how well that will work. Moreover, Pittsburgh only had the 50th ranked defense in the S&P+ last season (and worse the year prior) and they'll need a huge improvement to slow what could be the best Clemson offense of all-time.
Pittsburgh will be a fun opponent and likely the second best home game after Louisville, but this still should be a Clemson win.
at Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons are now in year three of the Dave Clawson era, and as beautifully explained by Robert Reinhard of Blogger so Dear, this is when expectations begin.
Last season their offensive line was hilariously horrendous. They weren't an ACC O-line by any standard except literally being on a team that happened to somehow be in the Atlantic Coast Conference. This year the offensive line will begin the year with 69 starts. Improvement along the line will be where progress begins. Clawson's recruiting has set Wake Forest records, which isn't saying much, but it does show that the level of talent is rising and they should be reasonable, maybe even bowl-eligible.
That said, they still should not pose a significant threat to a Clemson team that has dramatically better line play, as well as superior skill players.
Will Muschamp really wasn't as bad a hire as Clemson fans like to say. He has said that if he had hired Kurt Roper from the start he'd still be at Florida. That all may be true, but his roster simply isn't very good this year.That may be a bit harsh, but with no compelling answer at QB and the losses of star WR Pharoh Cooper (NFL Draft) and key linebacker Skai Moore (Herniated Disk), it's quite reasonable.
While rivalry games have an added element of unpredictability, and November is a long way away, a lot will need to go their way between now and then for them to have a realistic chance.