The Clemson Tigers check in at No. 15 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Tajh Boyd, QB
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is the more talented player and will more than likely receive more awards and recognition once the season is over, but Boyd is the engine that makes Clemson’s offense hum. In his first year as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, the junior set single-season school records for passing yards (3,828), total offense (4,046) and touchdown passes (33), while breaking the ACC mark for touchdown responsibility (38). The 10 victories Boyd led Clemson to in 2011 tied the school record for most wins by a first-year starting quarterback, and he became the first sophomore quarterback at the school to earn first-team All-ACC honors since Harvey White did in 1957. Boyd is anything but a one-man show as he’s surrounded by explosive playmakers, but Clemson would be nowhere near as dangerous on offense if someone other than Boyd was under center.
Trap Game: at Wake Forest (Oct. 25)
Yes, Clemson holds a commanding 59-17-1 advantage in its head-to-head meetings with Wake Forest and has won the past three by a combined 58 points. However, the Demon Deacons gave the Tigers all they could handle last season in Death Valley, building a 14-point third-quarter lead before Clemson scored the final 17 points and won the game on a 43-yard field goal as time expired. This season, Clemson has to travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Thursday night game against their fellow ACC Atlantic opponent comes just five days after the Tigers host Virginia Tech in an ACC title game rematch.
Upset Alert: vs. Auburn (Sept. 1)
Even though Auburn went just 8-5 as a follow up to its 2010 national championship, these Tigers out of the SEC can’t be overlooked. The season-opening catfight will take place in the Georgia Dome, which is more familiar turf for Auburn compared to Clemson. Auburn played Virginia, another ACC team, there in last season’s Peach Bowl, a game they dominated winning 43-24. Auburn also will be looking to exact a little revenge, as Clemson came to Jordan-Hare Stadium last season and left with a 14-point victory in hand. Clemson could also be without the services of receiver Sammy Watkins, who was arrested in early May and is facing a suspension.
Biggest Game: at Florida State (Sept. 22)
Clemson won last season’s game 35-30 behind Tajh Boyd’s 344 yards passing and three touchdowns. Even though this was the ACC opener for both, last year marked the third straight season that found the winner of this game going on to play in the ACC Championship game. Clemson is currently enjoying a four-game home winning streak against Florida State, but has come up short the last two times the teams have played in Tallahassee. Clemson wants to show everyone that last year was no fluke as well as get a chance at some redemption in another BCS bowl game. To have any hopes of playing in a second straight BCS bowl, the Tigers will more than likely need to get back to the ACC title game, and Florida State appears to be one of the biggest obstacles in their way.
Freshman to Watch: Travis Blanks, DB
Blanks went to high school in Tallahassee, which is where Clemson’s ACC Coastal Division rival Florida State is located, and was regarded by several recruiting services as one of the top prospects at his position. In the end, he chose to sign with the Tigers and the true freshman may get the chance to torment his home town Seminoles as early as this fall. Blanks enrolled at Clemson in January and impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic during the spring. Don’t be surprised to see Blanks on the field early and often this fall when new defensive coordinator Brent Venables employs the Tigers’ nickel packages.
Revenge Game: vs. NC State (Nov. 17)
Outside of its 37-point loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, Clemson’s largest margin of defeat in 2011 was at the hands of NC State. The Wolf Pack took advantage of four Tiger turnovers and scored 27 points in the second quarter to coast to an easy 37-13 victory in Raleigh. Clemson was ranked No. 7 at the time, and although the loss didn’t cost the Tigers the ACC Atlantic Division crown and a spot in the ACC title game, there’s little doubt they want to put forth a better showing when the two meet in Death Valley in November. That’s especially true for quarterback Tajh Boyd, who was responsible for three (two INTs, one fumble) of the four turnovers in last season’s meeting. That NC State game also was the only game in 2011 in which he didn’t throw at least one touchdown pass.
Season-Defining Moment: vs. South Carolina (Nov. 24)
Clemson’s regular season will have already been defined by the time the two in-state rivals meet up at the end of November as the Tigers will already know if they will be headed to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game in Charlotte that next Saturday. If that is indeed the case, however, then it’s entirely possible that Clemson could still be in the national title hunt, meaning the last thing the Tigers could afford is a loss to South Carolina. And even if a shot at the national title isn’t in the picture, there’s this: the Tigers have lost three in a row to the Gamecocks, by an average of 20 points. South Carolina was truly the dominant team last season, as Clemson managed only 153 yards of offense while giving up 420 to the Gamecocks. In the end, regardless of what may or not be at stake, this is a season-defining game as far as the state of South Carolina is concerned.
Defensive MVP: Malliciah Goodman, DE
Goodman enters his senior season having played in 41 games, including 15 starts. His value cannot be measured in statistics alone as he played 767 snaps last year, not only the most among Clemson lineman in 2011, but the most by a Tigers’ defensive lineman in school history. However, besides bringing experience to and providing veteran leadership for Clemson’s defensive line, the Tigers also need Goodman to increase his production as he will attempt to fill the void left behind by Andre Branch, the ACC’s sack leader (10.5) in 2011. Goodman had 59 tackles last season, 43 of those solo stops, but only two sacks.
Unsung Hero: Chandler Cantanzaro, K
Cantanzaro was named second-team All-ACC in 2011 as he set a new school record for kicking points in a season with 118. He was the ACC’s leading scorer and tied for the conference lead in made field goals with 22. The one-time walk-on was 9-of-12 on field goal attempts of 40 yards or more and is 15-of-21 from that distance over the last two years. His career 71.4 success rate from 40 yards and out is a school record. He has missed one extra point attempt (86-87) in 27 games and is already seventh in school history in extra points made. He also established Clemson records for both extra points made (52) and attempted (53) in 2011.
Newcomer to Watch: Stephone Anthony, LB
Anthony was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school who saw action in 13 games, including three starts, as a true freshman. Heading into the fall the sophomore is the projected starter at middle linebacker, and head coach Dabo Swinney and new defensive coordinator Brent Venables are hoping he has a huge impact from Week 1. He showed flashes of his immense talent and potential at times last season, most notably in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech. In that game, Anthony tallied three tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and forced a fumble in the Tigers’ convincing 38-10 win over the Hokies.
Comeback Player: Tony Steward, LB
Steward is another of the prized recruits from Clemson’s 2011 class as is fellow linebacker Stephone Anthony, who was a USA Today first-team All-American out of high school. Steward, just like Anthony, also played right away getting on the field in five of the Tigers’ first seven games. Then on Oct. 18, Steward tore his ACL in practice, ending his freshman season prematurely. He missed spring practice as he is still recovering, but is expected to be ready to go when practice starts in August. After seniors Tig Willard and Corico Hawkins, Clemson’s linebacker depth is pretty young and inexperienced, so the coaching staff is hoping that Steward will be healthy enough to continue his growth and development on the field this fall.
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