CLEMSON - Once again, it looks on paper like Clemson's schedule is split into two parts: The Big Three and The Other Nine.
Just like 2013, the Tigers will have mighty challenges awaiting in Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina, who each spent time in the top five of the rankings last year. Clemson will host the Gamecocks to close out 2014, but will have to travel to Athens and Tallahassee in the first four weeks of the season.
Then there's everybody else, which in 2013 offered little resistance. Only Boston College was able to stay within 10 points of the Tigers.
Hang on, now. North Carolina and Louisville visit Death Valley in the schedule's second quarter, when Clemson is still recovering from those early challenges. And Boston College and Georgia Tech have never been easy places to play. Then there's Wake Forest hosting the Tigers on a Thursday night, historically trouble for Clemson.
So Dabo Swinney's troops might have their hands full.
There is this bit of good news to offset the breaking in of Cole Stoudt as Clemson's quarterback - only three teams on the Tigers' schedule return their starting signal caller from 2013. That's FSU's Jameis Winston, Syracuse's Terrel Hunt and Georgia State's Ronnie Bell.
Clemson also only faces three defenses that were better than its own No. 24-rated unit in 2013: No. 1 Louisville, No. 3 Florida State and No. 19 South Carolina.
In the brief calm period in between Clemson and ACC Media Days and the start of fall camp, let's take a peek at each of the Tigers' 2014 opponents:
Game 1: Clemson at Georgia
Aug. 30, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Series: Georgia leads 41-18-4, including 26-7-1 in Athens
Last meeting: Clemson 38, Georgia 35 in Death Valley (Aug. 31, 2013)
Las Vegas line: Georgia 9-point favorite
While Cole Stoudt will be making his first Clemson start in late August, Hutson Mason received a slight head start when Aaron Murray tore his ACL in the Bulldogs' Kentucky game, thus giving Mason some experience versus Georgia Tech and Nebraska. Todd Gurley (6-1, 218) is regarded as perhaps the nation's top back entering in 2014, looking to erase a relatively mediocre sophomore season. Certainly, the Georgia defense has much room for improvement from last year's No. 79-rated group, and it helps returning the entire front seven to work for former FSU coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Game 2: S.C. State at Clemson
Sept. 6, 12:30 p.m., ACC Network
Series: Clemson leads 2-0, including 2-0 in Clemson
Last meeting: Clemson 52, S.C. State 13 in Death Valley (Sept. 7, 2013)
Five outright or split regular-season Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles in the last 10 years is enough to deserve your attention. S.C. State boasted the third-stingiest defense at the FCS level last year - seven of its 13 opponents couldn't reach 10 points - but the Bulldogs couldn't stop Stoudt's 19-for-20 effort from setting a school completion percentage record.
Game 3: Clemson at Florida State
Sept. 20, Time and TV to be announced
Series: Florida State leads 19-8, including 11-3 in Tallahassee
Last meeting: Florida State 51, Clemson 14 in Death Valley (Oct. 19, 2013)
Las Vegas line: Florida State by 17
It's one thing to speculate a certain Heisman winner and headline machine could slump next year, but it's hard to see an entire team with six preseason Athlon All-Americans collapse unless there's fractures in the leadership structure. History shows we as sports fans (and, ahem, media) love to build up heroes and tear them down just as quickly, so every move Winston makes on or off the field will continue to qualify as news, like it or not. With NFL defections and Pruitt having bolted for Georgia, maybe there's the slightest of chances the Seminoles' defense will be less than awesome.
Game 4: North Carolina at Clemson
Sept. 27, Time and TV to be announced
Series: Clemson leads 35-19-1, including 18-7 in Clemson
Last meeting: Clemson 59-38 in Death Valley (Oct. 22, 2011)
Las Vegas line: Clemson by 4
In the past six seasons, the Tar Heels have 24 ACC wins and 24 ACC losses; overall, they've had seven or eight wins, no more or fewer, all six years. New QB Marquise Williams, in 2013, produced more yards per attempt (7.8) and a better TD-INT ratio (15-6) than Bryn Renner, who had figured to compete for first-team all-ACC honors. The defense has a wave of tacklers and playmakers, but they're dreadful at stopping the run.
Game 5: N.C. State at Clemson
Oct. 4, Time and TV to be announced
Series: Clemson leads 52-28-1, including 23-11 in Clemson
Last meeting: Clemson 26-14 in Raleigh (Sept. 19, 2013)
Las Vegas line: Clemson by 23
The Wolfpack scored between 10 and 21 points in every 2013 ACC game; meanwhile, N.C. State never yielded fewer than 24 points in conference play. Jacoby Brissett will capture headlines mainly because he was a four-star recruit in the spring of 2011, but for two years he was a forgettable backup quarterback at Florida. The defense seems a little more set up front on the defensive line than on the back end, shoring up a rusty run defense.
Game 6: Louisville at Clemson
Oct. 11, Time and TV to be announced
Series: First meeting
Las Vegas line: Clemson by 10
A top-25 offense has plenty of pieces returning, led by DeVante Parker (22 TDs in two years) with an incoming coach more known for offense than his predecessor. Will Gardner's development under Bobby Petrino and OC Garrick McGee is the catalyst to Louisville's return to double-digit-win-land in 2014. Both starting safeties are gone - possibly replaced with freshmen - while Louisville's returning sack leader, Lorenzo Mauldin, had shoulder surgery in the offseason, so there's work to be done here.
Game 7: Clemson at Boston College
Oct. 18, Time and TV to be announced
Series: Clemson 12-9-2, teams tied 6-6-1 in Chestnut Hill
Last meeting: Clemson 24, Boston College 14 (Oct. 12, 2013)
Las Vegas line: Clemson by 18
Andre Williams' 355 carries and 2,177 yards, leading the land in rushing in 2013, didn't leave a lot of scraps for freshmen Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse. Boston College's defensive backs return all four 2013 starters, including three seniors and a junior, but the group rated 113th in the country in passing defense. The Golden Eagles should enter this offseason content in knowing they stared down the ACC's premier programs, leading FSU by 14 in the second quarter and Clemson by 4 entering the fourth.
Game 8: Syracuse at Clemson
Oct. 25, Time and TV to be announced
Series: Tied 1-1, have never met in Clemson
Last meeting: Clemson 49, Syracuse 14 (Oct. 5, 2013)
Young quarterback Terrel Hunt certainly had his tough moments - he completed just eight of 24 attempts against Clemson - but he's the Orange's leading returning rusher. Pass-rushers Robert Welsh, Eric Crume or Micah Robinson must produce chasing down opposing quarterbacks. Figure on Syracuse beating who it should and losing to who it should, which bodes well for Clemson to close October.
Game 9: Clemson at Wake Forest
Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Series: Clemson leads 61-17-1, including 22-10-1 in Winston-Salem
Last meeting: Clemson 56, Wake Forest 7 (Sept. 28, 2013)
Las Vegas line: Clemson by 20
The ACC's only team with a five-year streak of losing seasons needed to move on from Jim Grobe, who owns the program's only 10-win campaign back in 2006. Only eight starters return from last year's outfit, losing key veterans in quarterback Tanner Price, wide receiver Michael Campanaro and defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock. Clemson is just 3-7 on the road on Thursday night, but it's working on a five-game streak against the Demon Deacons, winning four of those five quite comfortably.
Game 10: Clemson at Georgia Tech
Nov. 15, Time and TV to be announced
Series: Georgia Tech leads 50-27-2, including 43-13-2 in Atlanta
Last meeting: Clemson 55, Georgia Tech 31 (Nov. 14, 2013)
Las Vegas line: Clemson by 6
When Clemson had 12 days to prepare for the Yellow Jackets' visit last fall, Tech had just 248 rushing yards, more than 50 yards below its season average. Last year the nickel defense produced no resistance against Clemson's spread attack - to the tune of 556 total yards and 55 points. Since losing to Iowa in the 2010 Orange Bowl, Georgia Tech is a paltry 1-8 against ranked opponents - with the one win coming against No. 6 Clemson in 2011, at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Game 11: Georgia State at Clemson
Nov. 22, Time and TV to be announced
Series: First meeting
The program was initially headed up by Bill Curry, a former Georgia Tech standout who played center for a decade in the NFL, but he left his post earlier than expected, so the Panthers took on former Indiana State head man Trent Miles for the gig. Georgia State will look to throw the football, as it averaged 35.8 tosses per game last year, but the Panthers only completed 50.7 percent of those tries.
Game 12: South Carolina at Clemson
Nov. 29, Time and TV to be announced
Series: Clemson leads 65-42-4, including 16-10-1 in Clemson
Last meeting: South Carolina 31, Clemson 17 in Columbia (Nov. 30, 2013)
Las Vegas line: South Carolina by 3
South Carolina counts 14 returning starters among its roster, tied for the most among Clemson opponents this fall. Tailback Mike Davis, receivers Shaq Roland and Damiere Byrd, and four offensive linemen mean the Gamecocks expect its offense not to miss a beat as though the show is now Dylan Thompson's. Six of the top eight 2013 tacklers return, but there are definite question marks on defense, since the new linemen have good size but much to prove. During the five-game losing streak, Clemson has 15 turnovers while South Carolina has three; the Gamecocks have scored 62 points off turnovers and the Tigers have scored zero.
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