With Clemson on its bye week this weekend, let’s take the oppurtunity to evaluate the team’s performance through the first half of the season, and what fans can expect from the Tigers for the rest of 2012.
MVP: DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins
This past offseason, Nuk Hopkins decided to give up basketball and commit himself to a full off-season’s workout regimen dedicated strictly to football. The results: a faster, stronger Hopkins who is now establishing himself as one of the greatest Clemson receivers of all-time. So far this season, Hopkins has set school records for most catches in a single game with 13 against Auburn, yards receiving in a single game when he had 192 yards receiving in a win against Boston College and tied the school record for touchdown receptions in a single game when he caught three touchdown passes all in the first half of Clemson’s 52-27 win over Ball State. His 777 yards receiving are the most receiving yards of any receiver in the country. Hopkins has clearly established himself as quarterback Tajh Boyd’s favorite target and safety net for whenever the offense needs a big play. The biggest concern Tiger fans can have about Hopkins: that come April he’ll be taking his talents to the NFL by foregoing his senior season.
The Good: The Schedule
While there have been plenty of positives during Clemson’s 5-1 record through the first half of the season, the most exciting aspect of the rest of the season has to be what this group has the potential of accomplishing with what’s left of the schedule. Dabo Swinney and company will finish the year playing four of their remaining six games in the friendly confines of Death Valley. Following next weekend’s game against Virginia Tech, the only two road games remaining are a Thursday night trip to Wake Forest October 25th, followed by a November 3rd game at Duke. Clemson then finishes up the regular season with home games against Maryland (3-2), NC State (4-2) and South Carolina (6-0). Clemson should enter every game up until the USC clash as a significant favorite. If the Tigers can avoid dropping a game they shouldn’t, there is a real possibility Clemson could enter its season finale against rival South Carolina with a 10-1 record and fighting for a berth in a BCS bowl.
The Bad: The Secondary
When Brent Venables took over the defensive coordinator position in the offseason there was a pretty good understanding around the Clemson community that this year’s defense was always going to be somewhat of a work in process. With three new starters on the defensive line and a total of six starters who are either sophomores or younger, this defense has experienced plenty of growing pains while giving up 27.3 points per game, ranking them 96th nationally in scoring defense.
However what has been most disappointing with this defensive squad are the blown coverage’s, missed assignments and poor tackling angles taken by the defensive backs. It’s almost understandable that Clemson has struggled getting a consistent pass rush with a group of three sophomores on the defensive line, but the play of seniors Rashard Hall, Xavier Brewer and Jonathan Meeks at the safety position have been more concerning due to the massive amounts of experience the senior trio have.
The Surprise: The offensive line
Similar to the defensive line, this unit had to replace three starters from a year ago. Clemson struggled to run the ball at the end of the season last year, and there were legitimate concerns as to how this unit would perform with several of last year’s back-ups thrust into starting roles. Depth was so thin at offensive line that junior Tyler Shatley converted from defensive tackle to guard and won the job during the offseason. However, Shatley has emerged as a mauler on the offensive line that brings a distinct edge of toughness Clemson fans have been dying to see at that position, while sophomore David Beasley’s play at the other guard position has allowed for Chad Morris to be more committed to a power running game. The best performance from the offensive line certainly happened in the season opener when it gashed the Auburn defense to the tune of 320 yards. The offensive line also performed well enough against Florida State’s talented defensive line, certainly playing well enough to give Tajh Boyd enough time to make plays down field. This unit has been significantly better than their predecessors of a year ago, and how well they can continue to play will have a huge impact on how well the Tigers play down the stretch.
If the Clemson defense had been able to make a single stop in Tallahassee earlier this year, it’s very reasonable to think that Clemson could be sitting at 6-0 and ranked among the Top 10 in the country. While a loss on the road in Tallahassee was certainly something this team and it’s fans would like to have avoided, it provided many positives, including the fact that this Clemson offense has the potential to hang points up on anyone in the country. Last year, the ACC put two teams in BCS games for the first time in the history of the BCS. The truth is, the ACC is down significantly as a conference this year, with Duke currently the only team in the Coastal division with less than two losses. Clemson will be hoping that Florida State has another loss in them after they were upset by NC State last weekend, providing Clemson with hope to play in the ACC Championship game regardless. If Clemson still wants to be playing in Charlotte at the end of the season, winning its remaining five conference games is a must. Add a win over rival South Carolina at the end of the season and this Tiger team will be bowling in the BCS regardless of whether or not they play in the conference championship game. With plenty left to play for, and a favorable remaining schedule, I expect this Tiger team to play its best football down the stretch and have a legitimate shot at a 10-1 record entering the final week of the season.