In the third in our summer series taking an in-depth look at the Clemson football program and the season ahead, our panel breaks down where Clemson should start in the preseason polls, 2014 ACC football and future football scheduling…
This is an interesting year for national perception of Clemson's program. While at least one spring top-25 didn't list the Tigers, another site has picked them to win it all. You have a top-25 poll in your hand - where are you pegging the Tigers preseason?
O&W beat writer Brandon Rink: In theory, the best thing a preseason poll can do is mirror the final post-bowl rankings come January. In 2013, they did just that for Clemson, starting No. 8 and finishing there in the AP Top-25.
There’s a natural wariness among the media about breaking in a new quarterback, which makes Clemson and Georgia’s preseason ranks interesting track in comparison. I could see ranking the Tigers ahead of Georgia preseason, even projecting the Bulldogs as the victor come Aug. 30.
Clemson’s realistic win range is 11-1 to 9-3 regular season. I'm splitting the difference there and going just short of top-10 preseason, No. 11. Clemson has the pieces to be a playoff contender, led by an attacking defense, but will need the o-line to jell, the receiver rotation to settle and some consistency at kicker quick to take a crucial win in Athens. Win that one and all bets are off on playoff chances even with a loss at FSU.
O&W editor Kerry Capps: I'll work backwards from the bottom line on this one. As we talked about last week, I don't think it's possible to stand on this side of the opener and throw out a viable number that equates to "success" this season. There are just too many variables that have to play out, including a heavily front-end loaded schedule for a team that's going be strong defensively, but which will have to reestablish its offensive identity. All that being said, I think if the Tigers win 10 this year, we'll look back on the season and say that they did a heck of a job.
A 10-win Clemson team would certainly a top-20 team - somewhere in the 15-20 range, especially if it has to put together a second-half run and beat South Carolina (which I think will happen) to get there. Nine wins, with a similar scenario, would probably make them a borderline top-25 team.
So I'd start the Tigers out at No. 15 - about where I figure they'll finish after another good season. Hope I'm wrong, but I don't see this team being in the playoff mix this time around.
O&W contributor Marty Coleman: My how the perception of Clemson has changed in the last few years and it goes to show you what winning and beating names team like Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Auburn will do for your rep. Not only were the Tigers chosen by that site to win it all, Stewart Mandel picked them as a dark horse to make the title game. My sights are a little lower, mainly because of the schedule includes trips to Athens and Tallahassee.
I'm not a believer in that the preseason top 25 should be a "reward" for the previous season. It should stand on it's own merit and when I look at the list that they're not on, I wonder how many of those, especially after number 15 or so, are based on last season. Is Duke better than Clemson? How about Cincinnati? Not only were the Tigers not in the top 25 in that list, but they weren't listed in the 14 "just outside the velvet rope". Apparently the author believes Clemson is 40th at best. As Mike Tyson would say, "Ludicrous".
I would put Clemson around 15. My feet are planted firmly on the ground because a lot was lost, there's a lot to prove, there's those pesky road trips I mentioned before and a recent history of struggling in the 12th game of the season, but the Tigers are building a consistent program under Dabo Swinney.
We're coming up on preseason poll season with conference media days going on across the nation (the ACC's in Greensboro starting Sunday). Who's your ACC darkhorse? Who's overrated? Florida State's best competition?
Rink: Literally any team could win the Coastal. All seven teams. Even Virginia…I mean…uh, yeah, sure - they could win it. The Hoos return the highest percentage of offensive production (which wasn’t much) and rank second only to Clemson in defensive production returning to the ACC. Only Clemson, Florida State, Miami and…Virginia has had top-35 recruiting classes each of the last four years so the talent is there. After coordinator changes aplenty in his tenure, the jury’s still out on fifth-year coach Mike London actually doing anything with it.
UNC’s an easy target for “overrated” as the perpetual darkhorse, but who really knows in that division? Louisville will be pegged as the next-best behind Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic…and rightly so. So, I’d say no one’s overrated really.
No one in the Coastal is in Seminoles’ weight class. No one. Not even close. The trip to Louisville could have been a potential misstep, but the ACC slipped in a bye before the Thursday showdown. Which brings us back to Sept. 20 and hosting Clemson – that’s the best chance that Florida State is not a highly-seeded playoff team. Anything would be more competitive than their meeting last season in Death Valley.
Coleman: The ACC is a two team race. I don't believe in North Carolina as much as some or Louisville very much at all. Florida State is, I believe, the most talented team in the ACC and perhaps country. My darkhorse AND the Seminoles competition is Clemson.
Louisville is overrated. If you think Tajh Boyd meant a lot to Clemson, Teddy Bridgewater meant more to Louisville. Not only did the Cardinals lose an all-time quarterback, they also lost their coach/mentor, most of his staff and are moving to a new, tougher conference. Can you say transition year?
Capps: In the Atlantic, Louisville is the obvious wild card. The Cardinals have reached the elite level the past two years despite having mid-level overall talent, according to the recruiting rankings, anyway. The week-in, week-out schedule gets an upgrade this season with ACC membership, and with a new coach and new quarterback, I'm in wait-and-see mode with the Cardinals.
I like a lot about BC, which I think has been rejuvenated by a combination of better recruiting and Steve Addazio's fiery can-do attitude. I really don't see Wake or State doing much at this stage, and Syracuse looks pretty decent, but probably not good enough to challenge.
The Coastal should be a free-for-all. North Carolina has a chance to challenge Miami and Virginia Tech if the Tar Heels can avoid getting mired in the athletic department's off-field issues. Virginia might make a move if it wasn't for Duke, which has the advantage of belief and a proven, perhaps miracle-working, coach. Whoever emerges from the Coastal should present a decent championship-game challenge for the Atlantic winner.
The ACC has decided to stick with an eight-game schedule for now, but should the model be tweaked going forward?
Capps: I give John Swofford the credit he's due for guiding the ACC through the expansion/realignment mess, but the entire ACC leadership has been stubbornly uncreative in tweaking its original scheduling/division structure. Nine games would make more frequent opponents of opposite division teams, which is desirable, but would wreck the national scheduling flexibility available to Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, and now Louisville, who finish their season with SEC rivals.
I'm a big fan of the 'three-by-five, no divisions' model proposed by the Raleigh News & Observer's Joe Giglio.
Since Joe invented it, I'll let him explain his thinking:
"There’s no easy way to balance a conference schedule for 14 teams. Under the ACC’s current format, the conference doesn’t even try. There are too many teams and not enough games; that’s just the baseline from which the conference is working in the expansion era. But there is a way to keep most, if not all important rivalries, and make sure every team plays each other on a more regular basis than it does now.
"Scrap the divisions, set up a rotating schedule and send the two best teams to the conference championship game. If you give each team three partners, they could play five teams home-and-home in the first two years of the rotation and the other five teams, home-and-home, in the second two years."
He went on to propose scheduling partners for all 14 teams. A couple of examples of high interest to Clemson fans:
Clemson: Partners - FSU, GT, Virginia; Year 1 Rotation - UNC, Duke, Syracuse, BC, Pitt; Year 2 Rotation - NC State, Wake, VT, Louisville, Miami
Florida State: Partners - Miami, Clemson, Wake; Year 1 Rotation - NC State, Virginia, Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse; Year 2 Rotation: UNC, Duke, VT, GT, BC
Once the NCAA scraps the two-division prerequisite for staging a championship game, I'd love to see the ACC make a bold move.
Rink: Following the SEC’s lead, the ACC stuck with eight games – giving more flexibility to its power programs in setting up championship-ready slates. Pending the NCAA’s championship game ruling (set for early August), I’m also in favor of the 3X5 model with just one swap.
Clemson permanent opponents: Florida State, Georgia Tech, N.C. State.
First five: Boston College, Louisville, Duke, Miami, Virginia.
Next five: Syracuse, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, UNC, Pittsburgh.
There’s no need for Clemson to play Syracuse and Boston College every year (or Wake Forest for that matter). In the 3X5, you play every team in the ACC in a four-year period with a trio of home-and-home permanent matchups that make sense. It takes away imbalance of home and road matchups in the nine-game schedule while providing regular games across the ever-expanding ACC region. Throw in the Notre Dame series to other potential OOC showdowns and there’s a pretty intriguing slate year-to-year.
The underrated element of making the ACC schedule less cumbersome is the plan would scrap divisions and pit the two best teams in Charlotte for the championship game. In a year where the Coastal looks down (and when has it been up lately?), Clemson would certainly take another shot at the ‘Noles on a neutral field this season if they had the chance.
Coleman: For me, it begins with the ACC, the Coastal in particular, getting better. If that happens this issue may solve itself.
Scheduling is complicated, more complicated than most fans want to admit. Assuming status quo in the ACC (Florida State and Clemson dominate) it depends on the "non-conference" games, which I put in quotes because of the Notre Dame arrangement. For Clemson, in the years you play Notre Dame eight ACC games is probably enough (with South Carolina in game 12).
In the other years, it depends on the schedule. If Georgia or Auburn is there fine. If you're playing Citadel and Coastal Carolina, you need nine ACC games or you are going to get hammered for scheduling. As a matter of fact, if the ACC doesn't get better you may STILL get blasted. We talked about perception earlier and believe me, the perception is that the SEC is tougher as a whole than the ACC. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, I'm saying that's the perception.
While I understand why The Citadel, Coastal and South Carolina State rotate through the schedule that doesn't mean I like it or think it's best for the team and fans, just that I understand it. But as a fan you tell me which game did you prefer as an opener: 2011 vs. Troy or 2013 vs. Georgia?
The eight game schedule works if you schedule competitive non-conference games in at least two of the other four games, which Clemson has done in the last several years (Auburn and Georgia twice, South Carolina each year). With the current state of the ACC adding a ninth conference game would likely hurt Clemson's strength of schedule, because it's not The Citadel or South Carolina State that's going to disappear off the schedule, it's the Auburn/Georgia type games that will be sacrificed to add another mediocre (or worse) ACC team.