CLEMSON — Six down. Six to go. Saturday afternoon, Clemson players and coaches kicked back and enjoyed their only open weekend of the 2012 regular season, perfectly timed at the season’s midpoint.
At 5-1, 2-1 in ACC play, the No.16 Tigers are positioned about where most reasonable observers expected at this point: their only loss came at then-No.4 Florida State, and FSU’s loss at N.C. State has given them a shot at another Atlantic Division title and trip to the ACC title game, provided they win out and the Seminoles lose once more.
A second consecutive 10-win season is certainly within reach, as well.
As we prepare for the second half of the season, here’s a look at the Tigers’ remaining six games, ranging from easiest to toughest:
6. Nov. 10 vs. Maryland: The Terrapins have been better-than-expected in Randy Edsall’s second season, but entering Saturday, their best win was a 19-14 victory over Wake Forest. They’ve largely struggled scoring points, although the loss Danny O’Brien (now benched at Wisconsin) hasn’t affected them; C.J. Brown, who shredded Clemson’s defense in College Park, is out for the season with a knee injury. Freshman quarterback Perry Hills had seven touchdowns against six interceptions entering Saturday. Even though the Tigers have struggled to stop anyone, I can’t pick Hills and Co. in Death Valley.
5. Oct. 25 at Wake Forest: Thursday night games have been a Clemson bugaboo; the Tigers’ last Thursday win over an ACC foe came in 2005 at N.C. State. BB&T Field has been no soft touch, either. Who can forget Gaines Adams’ scoop-and-score that sparked a comeback win in 2006, or Tommy Bowden’s last stand, an ugly 12-7 Thursday night defeat, two years later? Jim Grobe’s group has struggled with injuries and suspensions. Wake is 98th nationally in rush offense and 100th in rush defense, and might not have star wideout Michael Campanaro (sidelined by a broken hand). But until Clemson has proven it can shake off its Thursday night demons, reasons for concern remain.
4. Nov. 17 vs. N.C. State: A year ago, the Wolfpack proved they’re nothing to be trifled with, taking the Textile Bowl for the first time since 2003 with a 37-13 rout of a beat-up, Sammy Watkins-less Clemson team. The ‘Pack’s defense had been suspect against good opponents, allowing 35 points to Tennessee and 44 to Miami, making the FSU stunner even more jaw-dropping. Quarterback Mike Glennon has 1,681 yards passing with 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions, and the Tigers’ secondary has been questionable at best. Still, after last season’s debacle, there’s little chance Clemson will look past the ‘Pack.
3. Oct. 20 vs. Virginia Tech: Last season’s ACC title game opponent has been an absolute mess. The Hokies own losses to Pitt and Cincinnati, and North Carolina torched them for 48 points. They even spotted Duke a 20-0 first-quarter lead before rallying for a 41-20 win in Blacksburg, allowing them to enter Clemson with a little momentum and a 4-3 record. Quarterback Logan Thomas has been a disappointment; he entered Saturday with 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions and has looked lost at times. With Tech’s leaky defense and lack of a running game, Clemson should start the second half with a little mojo of its own.
2. Nov. 3 at Duke: Yes, you read that right. Even after Saturday’s meltdown at Tech, the Blue Devils are one win from their first bowl appearance since 1994. Getting that elusive sixth win won’t be easy; they finish the season against North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami. But Duke has come a long way under David Cutcliffe’s guidance; Sean Renfree is a very capable offensive leader.
It’ll also be interesting to see what the environment at Wallace Wade Stadium – long the ACC’s most placid environment – will be like. Clemson’s record of “creating its own excitement” in quiet road games has been spotty, although the Tigers did just fine at Boston College two weeks ago.
1. Nov. 24 vs. South Carolina: If you’re surprised by this choice, I have some lovely beach property in Iowa you’d be interested in. It’s entirely possible (as of 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon) that Clemson and the Gamecocks could enter this game with a combined record of 21-1 and top-10 rankings, which would make this the biggest game in a nasty, spirited series. Dabo Swinney will be feeling the heat after losing three straight to Steve Spurrier; the pair’s veiled barbs back and forth and the possibility of an evening kickoff in Death Valley only add spice. South Carolina has been very efficient offensively with quarterback Connor Shaw and a healthy Marcus Lattimore, and the Gamecocks’ nasty defensive line – led by breakout star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney – will give the Tigers’ improved offensive line its biggest test of the season. How will Chad Morris’ high-flying offense handle a vicious defense? I don’t know, but it’ll be loads of fun.