Coach:Dabo Swinney (4-3 in one season). | Staff In 2008: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in ACC (tied for third in ACC Atlantic). Lost to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 8. Special teams: 0. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 46th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 37th in 2009, 12th in '08, 16th in '07, 15th in '06.
THE SCHEME: Clemson plans to run multiple sets, with more of an emphasis on the spread than the Tigers have shown in the past.
STAR POWER: Senior RB C.J. Spiller never has run for 1,000 yards or caught as many as 35 passes in a single season, but he remains one of the nation's most explosive players. Spiller seemed poised for All-America honors and Heisman consideration after rushing for 938 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman, but he hasn't matched those numbers since. Now that he no longer will split carries with James Davis, Spiller just might have a season in which his production matches his potential. His career average of 6 yards per carry reflects his big-play ability. Spiller should benefit from lining up behind G Thomas Austin, who was named the ACC's offensive lineman of the week three times last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Redshirt freshman Dalton Freeman is competing with sophomore Mason Cloy – who started at guard last season – for the starting job at center. True freshman J.K. Jay enrolled in time for spring practice and is competing for a starting spot at right tackle. Clemson's lack of experienced receivers could allow Bryce McNeal to earn playing time as a true freshman.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Antoine McClain played sparingly as a true freshman, but he should open his sophomore season as the full-time starter at right guard. RB Jamie Harper carried the ball 34 times for 133 yards last season, but he should have a much bigger role in the backfield now that Davis has departed.
STRONGEST AREA: Clemson has plenty of talent at running back even without Davis in the lineup. Spiller is as talented as any player in the ACC on either side of the ball. Harper seems poised for a breakthrough season and should serve as an effective complement to Spiller. Clemson's line received much of the blame for the Tigers' struggles last season, but it should be one of the Tigers' biggest strengths this season. Five players who started at least seven games return. Austin, a second-team All-ACC selection last season, is one of the top linemen in the conference. That line should help Clemson run the ball effectively.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Tigers still aren't sure who's going to throw the ball or who's going to catch it. Speedy WR Jacoby Ford is a legitimate All-ACC candidate who caught 55 passes last season, but the Tigers don't have any other proven receivers. Kyle Parker exited spring practice as the front-runner to open the season as the starting quarterback, but he still must hold off a challenge from Willy Korn. No matter who wins the job, Clemson will be resting its hopes on a first-year starter. Then again, either could be an upgrade over Cullen Harper, who followed up a splendid 2007 season with an extremely disappointing 2008 campaign. As good as Clemson's starting line looks, the Tigers are in plenty of trouble if starting LT Chris Hairston gets hurt. Clemson doesn't have a proven backup at that position.
THE SCHEME: Clemson runs a 4-3 defense and plans to blitz and pressure more than it did in previous seasons, when the Tigers ran more of a zone-based, read-and-react system.
STAR POWER: Senior CB Chris Chancellor is a third-year starter who has recorded four interceptions and has broken up nine passes each of the past two seasons. Chancellor comes up big in big games, as he has three career interceptions against archrival South Carolina. DeAndre McDaniel is moving into the secondary, to strong safety, after recording 77 tackles as a starting linebacker last season. He had 19 tackles and scored on a fumble return in Clemson's final two games last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: It's tough to find many candidates for this category. Clemson returns so many upperclassmen that newcomers will struggle to earn playing time. DE Malliciah Goodman could get some opportunities as a backup to sophomore Da'Quan Bowers, and the lack of depth at linebacker could create some opportunities for redshirt freshman Jonathan Willard.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Rated as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, Bowers made six starts as a true freshman and improved as the season progressed. He had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage in the Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska. Now that he's had a year to adjust to the college game, Bowers should emerge as one of the ACC's top pass rushers in his sophomore season. LB Brandon Maye won a starting job last season and recorded 87 tackles, the most by a Clemson freshman since Anthony Simmons delivered 150 stops in 1995. Maye should develop into the Tigers' best linebacker and one of their top overall defensive players this season.
STRONGEST AREA: Chancellor and Crezdon Butler give Clemson a cornerback tandem that could rank among the nation's best. The Tigers also have a wealth of experience up front, assuming E Ricky Sapp is back at full strength after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament late last season. Clemson's starting linebackers also are solid across the board; depth is the question.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Tigers can't afford any injuries at linebacker. Maye, Kavell Conner and Scotty Cooper combined for 240 tackles last season, but Clemson doesn't have any proven backups at the position.
Clemson lost plenty of stability here following the departures of K Mark Buchholz and P Jimmy Maners. Buchholz was 88-of-88 on extra-point attempts in his career. Redshirt freshman Spencer Benton is the most likely candidate to replace Buchholz, but Richard Jackson could challenge him. New P Dawson Zimmerman has some college experience. He "started" two games last season and averaged 38.5 yard per attempt, but a pulled hamstring bothered him for much of the season. Spiller and Ford give Clemson two of the nation's most dangerous return men. The unsettled kicking and punting situations merit a "C," but Clemson's exceptional return game brings the entire special-teams grade up a letter.
Dabo Swinney won plenty of fans last year by rescuing the season after a slow start resulted in predecessor Tommy Bowden's departure. Clemson seemed in danger of missing out on a bowl bid before the Tigers regrouped under Swinney in a late-season surge that culminated with a surprisingly easy victory over South Carolina. But it remains that Swinney had no head-coaching experience before taking over this job midway through the 2008 season. Only time will tell if the Tigers eventually will regret hiring a more proven commodity, such as Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, a Clemson alum. Swinney should benefit from the presence of a veteran staff that features new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who won plenty of praise for his work at Alabama and Florida State. The new offensive coordinator is Billy Napier, the Tigers' former tight ends coach.
Clemson won't get a chance to ease into ACC competition. The Tigers' conference opener comes Sept. 10 at Georgia Tech, the team considered the most likely challenger to Virginia Tech's two-year reign as conference champion. The Tigers' ACC schedule is otherwise rather favorable. Clemson's other conference road games come against Maryland, Miami and North Carolina State. Clemson won't have to play Virginia Tech or North Carolina unless it meets one in the ACC championship game. The Tigers also face two-time defending Atlantic Division champion and likely preseason Atlantic Division favorite Florida State at home. The Tigers must travel to South Carolina for the regular-season finale and also have a challenging non-conference home game against TCU. The other non-conference home games come against Football Championship Subdivision member Coastal Carolina and Sun Belt program Middle Tennessee, which upset Maryland last season.
Last season, Clemson was the ACC's biggest surprise for all the wrong reasons. The overwhelming preseason pick to win the conference, the Tigers instead dropped three of their first four league games and almost didn't qualify for a bowl game. One year later, the Tigers could offer an entirely different kind of surprise. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are the ACC teams garnering most of the preseason attention, but Clemson has the capability to challenge for the conference title that has eluded the Tigers since 1991, the year before Florida State joined the league. Clemson's passing game has plenty of question marks, but the Tigers boast an exceptional defense, a veteran offensive line and arguably the league's most dynamic player in Spiller. The offense seems too talented to struggle as much as it did last season, when the Tigers ranked 87th in the nation in total offense. The defense should be every bit as good as the unit that ranked in the top 20 last season in points and yards allowed. If Swinney avoids making a newcomer's mistakes in his first full season and Parker or Korn plays as well as Harper did in 2007, Clemson could capture its first ACC championship game berth. The more likely scenario is that the Tigers finish second in the Atlantic Division, land a second-tier bowl bid and win eight games.