It's the start of another season of Clemson football, and there is an air of cautious optimism and nervous excitement surrounding the program this year. Dabo Swinney made wholesale changes to his staff this offseason, and we will soon see the fruits of that labor, whether they be ripe or rotten. Clemson's first oppenent is five-time reigning Sun Belt conference champion Troy. The Tigers can ill afford to overlook the Trojans, or else they could find themselves on the wrong end of an embarrassing loss.
Clemson offense vs. Troy defense
New offensive coordinator Chad Morris brings in an up-tempo, no-huddle attack that fans are anxious to see in action. He has praised quarterback Tajh Boyd for his efforts to hone the offense after looking shaky in the spring. Boyd worked hard throughout the summer and fall to improve his command of the offense and is now, by all accounts, much more prepared. He can rest assured knowing that he has Andre Ellington to turn and hand the ball to. Ellington returns to the field after missing the last half of 2010 with a foot injury and claims to be back in top form. We should see speedy freshman Mike Bellamy on the field as well. A Clemson passing game that was abysmal last season should improve with the addition of some bigtime playmakers. The Tigers bring in three highly-touted freshman receivers to compete for playing time with the verterans. Sammy Watkins will be the first true freshman to start Clemson's season opener in well over a decade. Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant also seem primed to earn plenty of snaps this season. Add in returning starters DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown, and the Tigers could have their best passing attack in years. Troy's defense is definitely not the strength of its team. The Trojans were 84th in the country last season in scoring defense, surrendering more than 30 points per game. Linebacker Xavier Lamb was the team's top tackler last season (91 tackles) despite his dimunitive stature (5 feet 9 inches). Defensive End Jonathan Massaquoi is the guy to watch out for on defense, as he racked up 20.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks last season.
Key matchup: Clemson offensive line vs. Troy defensive line
Clemson's offensive line averages 310 pounds, while Troy's defensive front averages just over 266. I see a distinct advantage in Clemson's favor here, and the Tigers' veteran O-line should have their way with Troy's smaller line.
Troy offense vs. Clemson defense
Troy has one of the best young quarterbacks in the country in Corey Robinson. As a true freshman last season, he threw for 3726 yards and 28 touchdowns. There is no question this kid can sling the ball around. His problem this year, however, is that all of his top targets from last year are gone. And I mean all of them. New playmakers will probably emerge based solely on Robinson's ability as a quarterback, but that will likely be an issue in the first game of the season. Shawn Southward is a nice option at running back (643 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010), but besides him, this offense is seriously lacking proven weapons right now. Clemson lost some key players from last year's stout defense, but they shouldn't suffer much of a drop-off this season. Malliciah Goodman will try to fill the big shoes left by Da'Quan Bowers, while Jonathan Meeks will try to replicate the production of longtime starter DeAndre McDaniel in a retooled Clemson secondary. The linebacking corps added some much-needed depth with this latest recruiting class, and freshmen Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward will challenge for starting jobs right away. Quandon Christian's spot should be safe, as he is the top playmaker in this unit. Corico Hawkins is a solid player, and figures to have a hold on the Mike linebacker spot for now.
Key matchup: Robinson vs. Clemson defensive line
Robinson is the best player on Troy's team, so expect Kevin Steele's defense to really put some pressure on him. If they can rattle him early, there will be turnovers to be had. If Goodman and Andre Branch don't get to him, however, he could settle in and make some plays in the passing game. Clemson does not want to see that happen.
Chandler Catanzaro will remain Clemson's starting kicker for now, and we will see if he can shake off last season's woes. Dawson Zimmerman has proven to be an All-American caliber punter. Clemson should be dynamic in the return game this season, with Ellington, Bellamy and Watkins all likely to participate. Troy returns a solid kicking game from last year. Michael Taylor made 17 of 22 field goals last season, and Will "The Beard" Goggans averaged 42 yards per punt. The Trojans, however, return virtually no experience in the kick return game.
Clemson fans should not be sleeping on Troy like they are. Troy has built a solid football program over the past few years, and I can tell you that they will be coming into Death Valley expecting to compete and win. I expect Clemson to start slow because they are breaking in a new quarterback and a new offense. Troy could easily hang around for a while in this game. I think once Clemson settles in, however, the Tigers will overwhelm a sub-par Troy defense with their speed and physicality. The Tigers should start the season 1-0.
Clemson 34 Troy 17