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Is Clemson the ACC's Surprise Team for 2011?


By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Defining what is a surprise team is no easy task. Before the season kicks off, Athlon will take a look at a team from each of the BCS leagues that could be a surprise contender in their conference. Each of the candidates to surprise will be ranked fifth or worse in Athlon’s 2011 predictions.

Is Clemson the surprise team in the ACC? Here are four reasons to like and four to doubt the Tigers.

Reasons the Tigers will surprise:

1. In each of the last six seasons, Clemson has ranked in the top 25 of Athlon’s top 50 recruiting classes. The Tigers ranked ninth last season, which included one of the top linebacking classes (Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony) in the nation. Clemson has consistently recruited among the top teams in the conference, with nine players earning a spot on Athlon’s 2011 preseason All-ACC team. Although the results on the field haven’t been what Clemson fans have wanted to see, the talent is in place to contend for the ACC title every year.

2. The hire of Chad Morris as coordinator should produce instant results for Clemson's offense. Morris called the plays at Tulsa last season, leading the Golden Hurricane offense to an average of 505.6 yards and 41.4 points per game. The Tigers want to raise the tempo on offense and will throw a lot of different looks at defenses. Clemson ranked 10th in the ACC in scoring and total offense last season and similar numbers won’t be enough to contend in the Atlantic Division race in 2011. Expecting the Tigers to equal Tulsa’s totals from last year is ambitious, but improvement should be noticed, especially with a promising group of weapons stepping into more playing time.

3. The trio of quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins could be one of the best in the ACC by the end of the year. Boyd has thrown only 63 career passes, but was regarded as the No. 77 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Ellington was off to a terrific start last year, but due to a toe injury, had only one carry in the final five games of last season. Hopkins is coming off a strong freshman effort in 2010, catching 52 passes for 637 yards and four scores. Although this trio is young, the talent is capable of leading Clemson to an Atlantic Division title.

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4. Clemson suffered some significant losses on defense, especially with the departure of end Da’Quan Bowers, tackle Jarvis Jenkins and safety DeAndre McDaniel. However, with Kevin Steele at the controls, this unit may not suffer much of a drop-off. The Tigers ranked first in the ACC in scoring defense last year, allowing 18.8 points per game. Clemson return six starters on defense, including likely All-ACC players in end Andre Branch and safety Rashard Hall. Replacing Bowers and Jenkins on the line is arguably the unit's biggest issue. However, Branch and fellow senior Brandon Thompson are a solid duo, while Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford are ready to emerge as key cogs up front. Expect the defense to get a boost from freshmen linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, who are expected to see significant snaps in 2011. Steele is one of the best defensive coordinators in the ACC and even with the losses, this should still remain one of the best in the conference.

Reasons to doubt the Tigers will surprise:

1. The Tigers are certainly bringing in elite talent, but that has meant little on the field in recent years. Clemson’s last double-digit win total came in 1990 under Ken Hatfield (10) and have managed only one appearance in the ACC title game. The Tigers have consistently underachieved and many people doubt Dabo Swinney is the right man for the job. Programs can bring in all of the elite talent they want, but if the right coaches aren’t in place, the results will fail to matchup. Considering the Tigers have possessed one of the ACC’s most talented rosters over the last six seasons, they should have fared better in the final standings. Is there really any reason to believe 2011 might be different?

2. In addition to Clemson’s history of underachieving, it closed out 2010 on a dismal note. The Tigers lost three out of their final four games, including the Meineke Car Care Bowl against South Florida. Losses against Florida State and South Carolina are nothing to be embarrassed about, but the Tigers have to step it up against those teams if they want to be a top 25 team this year. The disappointing end to last season raised a lot of question marks about coach Dabo Swinney’s future at Clemson. If the Tigers lose to Auburn and Florida State and finish September with a 2-2 record, those concerns will be ignited once again.

3. Although Chad Morris was one of the top offensive coordinator hires in college football, it might take some for all of the pieces to come together. Quarterback Tajh Boyd is capable, but lacks overall experience and completed only 52.4 percent of his throws last year. Running back Andre Ellington could be one of the best in the ACC, but he couldn’t stay healthy last season and his toe injury raised concerns about his durability. The offensive line returns four starters, but has to replace left tackle Chris Hairston – the top player from last season’s unit. The Tigers could have one of the most improved offenses in college football this year. However, with Boyd likely suffering a few growing pains in his first year as the starter, along with the entire offense picking up a new scheme, it may take a few games before things start to click.

4. The nation should get a good snapshot at just how good Clemson is in September. The Tigers play their first four games at home, which includes matchups against Florida State and Auburn. Considering the Seminoles host Oklahoma a week before playing Clemson, the Tigers could be in position to pull off the upset. Although a 4-0 start isn’t out of the question, Clemson didn’t catch any breaks the rest of the way. The Tigers have road dates against Virginia Tech, Maryland, Georgia Tech and NC State in conference play, along with the season finale against rival South Carolina. Five of the final eight games are away from Death Valley, including three key swing games in conference play. The schedule isn’t overly difficult, but the road dates will be tricky for a team that’s likely to be jockeying for position in the ACC Atlantic against Maryland and NC State.

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