THE SCHEME: Clemson typically runs three-receiver sets and has figured out ways to capitalize on having two tailbacks as talented as James Davis and C.J. Spiller. The Tigers sometimes put Davis and Spiller on the field at the same time, with Spiller often starting out in the backfield and heading to the slot before the snap. Davis also occasionally takes a direct snap in those situations.
STAR POWER: Davis has earned first-team All-ACC honors each of the past two seasons, while Spiller is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Aaron Kelly should end his career with more catches than any receiver in ACC history. Quarterback Cullen Harper is an All-America candidate who last season became the first Clemson player to lead the ACC in passing efficiency since 1983.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman guards Mason Cloy and David Smith should earn ample playing time because both of last season's starting guards are gone. Cloy and Smith might even work their way into the starting lineup by midseason.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior tackle Cory Lambert is a former four-star prospect who hasn't earned a starting job yet, but the Tigers are counting on him to replace the departed Barry Richardson as the starting left tackle. Lambert showed plenty of potential during spring practice. His performance this season could go a long way toward determining whether Clemson's line can overcome its inexperience.
STRONGEST AREA: Davis and Spiller give Clemson arguably the nation's top running back tandem now that Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones have moved on to the NFL. Davis and Spiller have combined to rush for 3,957 yards and score 46 touchdowns the past two seasons. Davis ranks fourth among active Division I-A players with 3,130 career rushing yards. After two seasons at Clemson, Spiller already has scored 10 career touchdowns from at least 50 yards away, more than any player in school history.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Clemson has a glittering array of stars in the receiving corps and in the backfield, but the inexperience in the trenches could prevent all those guys from matching their 2007 production. The only linemen with much starting experience are junior center Thomas Austin and sophomore guard Barry Humphries. Clemson will have first-year starters at both tackle spots.
OVERVIEW: Clemson scored a school-record 430 points last season and could match that total this season. The Tigers arguably have the best quarterback, the two best running backs and the top wide receiver in the ACC. This marks the first time in school history that Clemson returns a 1,000-yard rusher and a 100-catch receiver from the previous season. The lack of experience on the line offers cause for concern, but the Tigers have to feel good about the rest of their offense. One of the keys is avoiding mistakes. The Tigers committed just 12 turnovers last season (only Ball State had fewer giveaways).
That's the school record for career touchdown catches, which is owned by Glenn Smith, who played in 1949-51. Aaron Kelly has 16, which puts him two away from matching the oldest mark in the Clemson record books.
THE SCHEME: Clemson runs a 4-3 defense but often will drop end Ricky Sapp into pass coverage.
STAR POWER: Clemson has two potential stars in the secondary. Senior strong safety Michael Hamlin is entering his fourth season as a starter and earned second-team All-ACC honors last year, when he had 97 tackles and four interceptions. He enters his senior season with 12 career takeaways. Junior cornerback Chris Chancellor lacks Hamlin's experience, but he might be a better overall player. Chancellor picked off four passes last season and helped hold Maryland star receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey without a catch in the Tigers' 30-17 victory over the Terps.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: There might not be a true freshman defensive player in the nation who will make a bigger impact this fall than end DaQuan Bowers, a 6-foot-5, 265-pounder who enrolled in time for spring practice. He wasted no time showing why he was ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class. Bowers compiled 97 tackles – 33 for loss – and 14 sacks as a senior in high school.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior linebacker Kavell Conner had 46 tackles last season, a total that led all Clemson reserves. He capped the season by making 15 tackles in the Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn. Conner moves into the starting lineup at weakside linebacker and should emerge as one of Clemson's top tacklers.
STRONGEST AREA: Clemson returns all four starters from a secondary that helped the Tigers rank 13th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense last year. Hamlin and free safety Chris Clemons enter the 2008 season with a combined five years of starting experience. Chancellor and Crezdon Butler provide the Tigers with a speedy cornerback tandem.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Any team that returns so many starters from a defense that ranked ninth in the nation last season isn't going to have too many problems, but the depth at linebacker represents a minor concern - particularly now that returning middle 'backer Cortney Vincent has been dismissed from the team. Redshirt freshman Brandon Maye could be the guy who replaces Vincent. Linebacker is the one area of the defense where the Tigers can least afford injuries.
OVERVIEW: Clemson's defense lacks the big names of its star-studded offense, but the Tigers have a chance to be even better on this side of the ball. Virginia Tech was the only team last season to score more than 26 points against Clemson, which was ninth in the nation in total defense and 10th in scoring defense. And nearly all the major players are back. Bowers and Sapp should give Clemson quite a pass-rushing tandem, and the secondary compares favorably to just about any defensive backfield in the nation. Clemson might be the only team in the ACC known more for its offense than its defense, but the Tigers' defense won't remain anonymous for long.
Senior Mark Buchholz returns as the Tigers' kicker after going 22 of 36 on field-goal attempts last season, but he was just 6-for-17 from at least 40 yards. Senior Jimmy Maners returns as the punter, though he could face a major challenge from true freshman Dawson Zimmerman. The Tigers have outstanding return men in Spiller and Jacoby Ford. Spiller returned a kickoff for a touchdown in consecutive games last season, while Ford scored on a punt return and kick return in 2006. But the return units need an upgrade. Clemson was horrible in punt coverage, allowing 14.7 yards per return and a TD. The kick-coverage unit wasn't much better, allowing 22.7 yards per return and two TDs.
Tommy Bowden has endured plenty of criticism for Clemson's failure to win big games, but he is one of only five coaches to have his team eligible for a bowl every season since 1997. He also is one of only five coaches in ACC history to deliver eight consecutive winning seasons with the same program. The presence of offensive coordinator Rob Spence and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning helped Clemson become the only ACC team to rank in the top three in the conference in total offense and total defense last season. Spence has added plenty of imagination to Clemson's offense. The Tigers have ranked in the top 20 in total defense and scoring defense in each of Koenning's three seasons as coordinator. Offensive line coach Brad Scott gives Clemson an assistant with head-coaching experience, and his group will be under the microscope for much of the season.
Alabama (in Atlanta)
North Carolina State
South Carolina State
at Wake Forest
at Boston College
at Florida State
vs. South Carolina
Clemson gets an early chance to prove its status as a top-10 team when it opens the season against Alabama in Atlanta. After that game, the Tigers won't leave home again until their Oct. 9 showdown at Wake Forest. Clemson better capitalize on all those early home games – including two against Division I-AA teams – because the schedule gets much tougher in the second half of the season. Clemson must go on the road to face Wake, defending Atlantic Division champion Boston College and Florida State during a four-week midseason stretch. The Tigers won't meet defending ACC champ Virginia Tech unless they meet in the conference title game.
Clemson still hasn't reached the ACC Championship Game despite having one of the league's top talent bases each of the past three seasons. If not now, when? That's the question Clemson fans have to be asking themselves. Clemson certainly looks like the best team in the league, but the Tigers must avoid the breakdowns that have kept them from winning the division in the past. They've spent the past two seasons wondering what might have been if a kick hadn't been blocked or a pass hadn't been dropped. They have no excuses this season. And the regrets should stop this season. Clemson is too good to settle for second place in the Atlantic Division. Clemson ought to go 11-2 with an ACC title and a long-awaited BCS berth.