The 14th-ranked Clemson Tigers get their highly anticipated 2012 season underway this weekend, when they take on the Auburn Tigers in the Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers come in following a strong 2011 campaign that saw the team win 10 games, go 6-4 in the ACC, capture the ACC title with a blowout win over Virginia Tech (38-10) and earn a BCS Bowl bid.
Despite the strong season, things did not end well for Clemson, which got torched by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, 70-33.
Gene Chizik led Auburn to a perfect 14-0 season and a national title in 2010, but with the departure of Heisman winner Cam Newton, the team took a step back in 2011. After opening the year with wins in four of their first five games, the Tigers fell victim to a murderous SEC slate, with the team going just 3-4 down the stretch, dropping lopsided decisions to Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama along the way.
The Tigers were able to end the year on a strong note though, topping Virginia in the Chik-fil-A Bowl, 43-24.
Auburn holds a 34-12-2 advantage in the all-time series with Clemson, but Swinney's team ended a 14-game skid against Auburn, posting its first win in the series since 1951, with a 38-24 decision in Death Valley last season.
In his first season as a starter, Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd burst on the scene, setting the conference record for TDs with 38 and becoming only the fourth player in ACC history to eclipse 4,000 yards in a season (4,026), en route to All-ACC First-Team honors. Boyd completed nearly 60 percent of his throws, with 33 TD passes, adding five more on the ground. It certainly helped to have a breakout star in his own right on the outside in freshman Sammy Watkins. The young receiver was named the National Freshman of the Year, earning All-ACC First-Team honors as well, while setting conference freshman records with 82 receptions, for 1,219 yards and 12 TDs.
However, a May arrest has resulted in a two-game suspension for Watkins, who will not suit up for this game.
"I accept this suspension," said Watkins. "I made a mistake and realized that when this first happened. One thing we learn in this program is that there are consequences for your actions. The entire summer has been a learning experience. I am ready to get past this and look forward to September 15 when I can return to game day in Death Valley."
Expect to see Boyd look more to DeAndre Hopkins (72 receptions, for 978 yards, five TDs) in Watkins' absence.
Despite a strong passing game, the Tigers were far from one-dimensional in 2011, as tailback Andre Ellington finished the year with 1,178 yards and 11 TDs. Ellington returns and should continue to put up strong numbers on the ground, giving the team great balance. Senior center Dalton Freeman was an All- ACC First-Teamer last season and will anchor the line in 2012, along with junior Brandon Thomas (6-5, 300), who can play both tackle and guard.
The Clemson defense was embarrassed in the Orange Bowl and caused a change, with new defensive coordinator Brent Venables brought in. Seven starters are back, but the four losses won't be easy to overcome, including the huge hole left at defensive end with the departure of All-American Andre Branch (85 tackles, 17 TFLs, 10.5 sacks). Junior Malliciah Goodman (59 tackles. two sacks) hopes to help in that area and build off a solid sophomore campaign.
The linebacking corps has a bit more experience, with the return of seniors Corico Hawkins (80 tackles. 5.0 TFLs) and Jonathan Willard (75 tackles).
The strength of this unit will be the secondary to start the season, with the return of Rashard Hall (team-high 89 tackles) at safety and Jonathan Meeks (three INTs) at cornerback.
Auburn was simply average in terms of offensive production a year ago. The loss of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn could be considered a negative heading into 2012, but Chizik has brought in former Temple OC Scot Loeffler to fill the void.
Quarterback play was suspect all year long in 2011 with both Barrett Trotter and Clint Mosley having their problems filling the large shoes left by Newton. Sophomore Kiehl Frazier gets the nod to start this season and has Chizik's full support.
"We expect Kiehl to be a leader for this team and to continue to work hard every day. I am confident in his ability and leadership skills and look forward to watching him progress in both areas."
Frazier will be aided by the return of WR Emory Blake (613 yards, 5 TDs in 2011) and Second-Team All-SEC TE Philip Lutzenkirchen (238 yards, 7 TDs last year).
There will be a change in the backfield as well, with the dismissal of talented tailback Michael Dyer (All-SEC First Team a year ago after rushing for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns), as it is now veteran Onterio McCalebb who will handle the lion's share of the carries, after showing his versatility in 2011 (707 rushing yards, 344 receiving yards, 338 return yards, 8 total TDs).
The Auburn defense struggled big time last year, ranking 11th out of 12 SEC teams in both scoring defense (29.3 ppg) and total defense (405.8 ypg). Ted Roof has moved on and has been replaced by former Atlanta Falcons DC Brian VanGorder, who served in the same capacity for Georgia from 2001-04 and was named the 2003 Broyles Award winner as the nation's top assistant coach.
The hope is that 10 starters returning to the defensive side of the ball will help improve the numbers under VanGorder.
The defensive front will be headlined by rush end Corey Lemonier, who quietly has a big 2011, earning All-SEC Second-Team honors, racking up 13.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, and 5 forced fumbles. He will be joined up front by fellow end Nosa Eguae (43 tackles, 6 tackles for loss) and tackles Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker.
Daren Bates is the player to watch in the middle of the unit, as the talented LB led the team in tackles last year (104). The secondary will feature playmakers like junior Demetruce McNeal and sophomore Jonathon Mincy.