By Paxton Delany
The ACC Champion Clemson Tigers could not have asked for a better conference season in 2011. The Tigers defeated Virginia Tech in the championship game to claim the ACC title they hadn’t held since 1991. Their overall record stood at 10-4 and 6-2 in the ACC, taking their only ACC losses from Georgia Tech and North Carolina State.
Even with two league losses, Clemson had the beginnings of a perfect season by winning eight games in a row. The Tigers came out of the starting gate fast and didn’t look back as they hammered Troy (43-19), Wofford (35-27), Auburn (38-24), Florida State (35-30), Virginia Tech (23-3), Boston College (36-14), Maryland (56-45) and finally North Carolina (59-38). The perfect start ended when the Tigers were stung by the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech knocked Clemson down, 31-17.
Despite eventually ending up with two league losses, Clemson’s strong start still placed the team in the ACC Championship game against Virginia Tech. After overcoming the Hokies near the beginning of their season, the Tigers again easily defeated the Hokies, 38-10, for the title.
With its first ACC Championship title in 20 years, Clemson headed to the Orange Bowl to meet the West Virginia Mountaineers. However, the mountain men proved to be mightier than the beast and Clemson’s season came to an end with a 70-33 loss.
The Tigers’ 2012 schedule has dropped Troy, Wofford, and North Carolina and picked up Ball State, Furman and Duke. These small changes within the schedule do not include N.C. State and South Carolina, two teams that defeated Clemson a season ago. Arguably two of their toughest opponents again this season, those games fall at the end of the schedule. A good idea or a bad one? Does Coach Swinney have a plan this time to keep the steam in the team, and insure it doesn’t sputter toward the end of the season again? The answers may come from the defense where new Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables steps into the light at Clemson after being at Oklahoma for 13 years. The D, after all, is what struggled so mightily in that bowl game.
Clemson features 15 returning starters that will try to lead the way to another good season. Those players include junior quarterback Tajh Boyd and junior running back Andre Ellington. Although Ellington had minor ankle surgery, he is expected to return for the summer training. Also returning are freshman All-American and freshman-of-the-year Sammy Watkins as well as junior DeAndre Hopkins, both at wide receiver. Watkins likely will miss some games after some offseason issues, though. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro also returns.
Not returning to the Clemson lineup for his senior year is tight end Dwayne Allen, winner of the John Mackey Award and a first team All-American. Allen was picked up in the NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts earlier this year. Clemson’s leading tackler Rashard Hall also will be absent in 2012 after injuring his knee during the 2011 season. Mike Bellamy, the team’s second-leading rusher, will not be returning to Clemson for the 2012 season as he fell into ineligibility academically.
In terms of newcomers, Clemson brought in Travis Blanks, a safety from Tallahassee and several offensive linemen like Patrick Destefano, Isaiah Battle, Jay Gullermo, and Oliver Jones as well as all-purpose player Zac Brooks and punter Bradley Pinion.
The first spring scrimmage for the Tigers on April 2 proved good news as Coach Swinney described: “This is one of the better first scrimmages I can remember.” Watkins posted 116 receiving yards with 2 touchdowns. Boyd completed 8 of 15 passes for 89 yards. Defensively, Josh Watson was the top tackler with 5. The second scrimmage came seven days later on April 9, but it left Coach Swinney a little less impressed. Nuke (DeAndre) Hopkins recorded 160 receiving yards and was named player of the game due to his consistency. Returning linebacker Corico Hawkins and Tig Willard each made 7 tackles. Newly signed freshman Travis Blanks, who enrolled in January, intercepted a pass with a 27-yard return. The final scrimmage for the Tigers saw Orange and White tied in overtime until Coach Swinney let kicker Chandler Catanzaro take a 45-yard kick for the winning score: Orange 23-White 20. “This game was kind of indicative of our spring, it has been very competitive,” Coach Swinney said.