PREVIEW: Alabama-Clemson 2008

Editor’s note: We are planning previews/scouting reports/analysis on all of Alabama’s 2008 games if there is an interest. We are also offering the preview as a PDF download if you would prefer reading it in a more attractive format online or to print it out for offline reading. You can get the three page downloadable PDF for $1.99 by clicking here. You can see sample pages below (Scroll down to read the story):

Tough, but winnable game

Clemson is a tough game to begin the 2008 campaign; however, the game is winnable. Here’s why:

OFFENSE: Clemson boasts one of the best backfields in college football. Senior quarterback Cullen Harper set a host of records in 2007—21 records in all. Harper’s stats were impressive 282 of 433 passes with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions.

He was sacked 35 times last year.

And that is where the Clemson offense must improve for 2008 to be a special year. But, the offensive line will see four new starters from last year’s problematic unit. Turnover like that means the line must establish cohesion during August and the early weeks of the season.

Clemson’s line wasn’t able to open much running room during three big games in 2007. The Tigers amassed just 8 yards rushing against Virginia Tech, 34 yards against Georgia Tech and 47 yards against Boston College.

That won’t be enough to defeat Alabama.

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The line must provide much more physical play, so that Clemson’s stable of star running backs can produce.

Senior running back James Davis should lead the way for Clemson’s ground attack. The senior has over 3,000 career rushing yards and 36 career rushing touchdowns. Last year, Davis contemplated jumping to the NFL, but returned to Clemson.

But the backfield doesn’t end with Harper and Davis. C.J. Spiller forms another cog in Clemson’s offensive arsenal. In 2007, Spiller rushed for over 700 yards. He provides a change of pace with his speed. In the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Spiller amassed 112 yards on 8 carries, including an 83-yard touchdown run. Spiller is also a threat on special teams; he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season.

Complementing the running game are returning starters at receiver. Seniors Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham provide explosiveness on the edges. Kelly caught a school record 88 passes for 1,081 yards last season. Grisham had 60 receptions last year for 653 yards. Another weapon to watch catching the ball and stretching the field is Jacoby Ford.

Getting the idea why Clemson is a consensus Top 10 school in 2008? They have proven weapons in the backfield, and at receiver. The question mark, and it is a big question mark, is the offensive line.

It bedeviled Clemson last season, and will prove problematic starting 2008.

DEFENSE: Last year’s Clemson defense was in the Top 25 of the major defensive categories of scoring, rushing, passing and total. The Tigers were 10th in scoring, 23rd in rushing, 13th in passing and 9th in total. And that unit returns 8 starters.

The strength of the Clemson defense just may be its secondary. All four starters return from last season, and the Tigers boast a pair of top safeties in seniors Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons. Hamlin and junior cornerback Chris Chancellor led the team with four interceptions each. The other corner, junior Crezdon Butler picked off three passes last year.

The corners helped the Tigers hold opposing teams to an average of 188.5 yards passing per game. Safety Hamlin led the team in tackles with 97.

The defensive line returns three of four starters. While the team lost Phillip Merling to the NFL, Clemson hopes freshman DaQuan Bowers could help fill the void. Bowers was a top recruit (rated a five star by Rivals). He brings 4.57 speed to the defensive end position. Expectations are as big for Bowers as some of Alabama’s top signees.

The hole in the Clemson defense is at linebacker. The Tigers face a dilemma perhaps as bad if not worse than the Tide. The Tigers must replace all three starters off last year’s team. The most recent loss was senior ILB Cortney Vincent. Bowden kicked Vincent off the team at the end of spring practice.

Without a doubt, linebacker is the least experienced part of the Tiger defense. Alabama should be able to attack this element of the Clemson front seven.

ANALYSIS: A matchup to watch is Alabama’s John Parker Wilson versus Clemson’s secondary.

We expect Alabama’s offensive line to provide sufficient protection for Wilson against the somewhat inexperienced Clemson front seven. This means Wilson should have time to make his decisions, and when Wilson has time he can be effective—just take a look at the tape of Wilson’s masterpiece against Tennessee.

However, if Alabama’s line reverts, then Wilson will have serious problems against a strong, experienced Clemson secondary.

The game will be determined by line play—Clemson’s offensive line. The line is suspect with four new starters , and the Tigers must replace two All-Americans.

Not an easy task. Much more difficult when you face a Nick Saban defense to start the season. Cohesion is a major recipe for offensive line success. Disrupting the cohesion is a strength of Saban’s scheme. The combination of this being a season opener and the limited time for Clemson to develop line chemistry during preseason drills, the defense has a substantial advantage.

If Alabama’s defensive line can exploit Clemson’s limited unit cohesion, it would go a long way to controlling Clemson’s explosive running game and passing game.

Score Projection: Alabama 31-Clemson 28

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Clemson Notes:
•Clemson returns 17 starters off last year’s squad.
•Of the 17 returning, 7 starters are on offense, 8 on defense and two on special teams.
•Clemson will have a returning 1000-yard rusher (James Davis) and a returning 1000-yard receiver (Aaron Kelly) in 2008. Clemson and Tennessee are the only BCS conference teams that can make that claim.
•Clemson led the ACC in scoring offense, passing efficiency offense, total touchdowns fewest turnovers and ranked second in rushing offense and total offense.
•Cullen Harper established 21 Clemson records during the year and led the ACC in passing efficiency. He became just the fourth quarterback in school history to lead the ACC in passing. He finished 22nd in the nation in passing efficiency.
Clemson ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total defense (9th, 306.8 yards per game) and scoring defense (10th at 18.7 points per game).
• Clemson was also 13th in pass defense, allowing 188.5 yards per game and 13th in pass efficiency defense.
• Clemson was also 23rd in rushing defense, meaning the Tigers ranked in the top 25 in the nation in all four major defensive categories.
•The Aug. 30 meeting is the first since 1975.
•This marks the first neutral site game to start Clemson’s season since the Tigers played Alabama in Birmingham in 1904. The Tigers won that game 18-0.
Clemson must replace four starters on its offensive line. Gone from last year’s team are: All-Americans OT Barry Richardson, OG Chris McDuffie. Clemson also lost seniors Christian Capote and Brandon Pilgrim.
“The Alabama game in the Georgia Dome will be one of national importance and should bring considerable exposure to our program. It will be a great challenge for our team right from the get go and it will create a sense of urgency for our players during the off season,” said Clemson head football coach Tommy Bowden.

“The offensive line and linebacker positions are areas of concern and areas we will address in the spring and August preseason work,” Bowden said. “We have moved some players to help ,shore up those areas and there will be an opportunity for freshmen to gain significant playing time.”