CLEMSON — Almost four years have passed, but the image remains indelible.
Shortly after halftime of the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, I looked up from my press box seat and noticed a striking visage.
Half of the Georgia Dome was full.
The other half was virtually empty.
The dividing line came precisely where the Alabama and Clemson sections merged, directly in the middle of each end zone.
It was that kind of night. Following the opening kickoff, the underdog Crimson Tide elected to eviscerate the No.9 Tigers, rolling to a 34-10 demolition that spelled the beginning of the end of Tommy Bowden’s ten-year Clemson tenure.
Alabama made its mark in the trenches, manhandling and physically dominating the Tigers on both sides of the ball.
Why does this matter now?
In two weeks, Clemson will return to the Georgia Dome for the first time in four years.
And there’s reason to be concerned about that trip, given the state of Clemson’s lines.
Clemson returns a grand total of three starters – and two seniors - from 2011’s offensive and defensive lines.
On the offensive line, senior center Dalton Freeman (a 2011 finalist for the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s top center) and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas return. On the defensive line, senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman is the lone returnee.
Clemson welcomes back a wealth of offensive talent, led by sophomore wideout Sammy Watkins, junior wideout DeAndre Hopkins, junior quarterback Tajh Boyd and senior tailback Andre Ellington.
But if the line can’t block for Boyd, how will he get them the ball? It’s a necessary question.
It was an issue entering camp, even before the line went through shuffles necessitated by sophomore right tackle Gifford Timothy’s meniscus tear.
Timothy is expected to be fine, but is not expected to start against Auburn.
As a result, the projected starter enters the season as a backup. Coaches considered moving Freeman outside to right tackle, but he is expected to remain at center. Redshirt freshman Shaq Anthony leads fellow redshirt frosh Joe Gore at right tackle.
Sophomore David Beasley has emerged as the starter at left guard, and junior defensive tackle Tyler Shatley is holding down right guard.
Outside Freeman and Thomas (who has one career start at tackle), here’s the number of offensive snaps the new starters have on the line: 30 (Beasley), zero and zero.
If you don’t think that’s keeping Dabo Swinney, Robbie Caldwell and Chad Morris up nights, you’re kidding yourself.
Perhaps the line will gel quickly and protect Boyd. Perhaps it will be fantastic.
But it is equally possible that the group will struggle to keep Boyd upright, and that he’ll be forced to use his legs and sharpen his reflexes while the pocket continually collapses around him.
2011’s line received its share of criticism, but it also started three seniors with a pair of capable fifth-year senior guards as reserves.
September will be a major litmus test for the line, with the opener followed by easy home dates against Ball State and Furman and a road test at ACC favorite Florida State.
A month from now, we’ll have a much better handle on the line and Clemson’s offense.
For now, there’s serious and healthy reason for concern.