First of all, let me apologize for not beginning this two-parter yesterday. The moving process hit a few snags, so I was unable to get to it. As a result, this will be a lengthy edition today.
Before we get started with the rankings, I would like to point out two things. First, I am a huge fan of rankings and lists. They make the world go round. Over the years, I have learned that few things can ignite a passionate discussion more than a list of rankings.
Second, notice what I will be ranking. It says “toughest games”, not “toughest opponents”. Going down the pecking order of Clemson’s opponents will have to be done at another time, but this is a broader examination of the overall schedule. Some of the factors I laid out in Monday’s blog are extremely important in evaluating how difficult a particular game is within the greater context of the schedule.
Frankly, this is not a tough road for Clemson to travel. Many of its top competitors—in both the ACC and the national championship hunt—have much more difficult climbs to the top. I have a feeling there will be many aspects of this list unanimously approved, and some of my ideas will raise eyebrows. That’s the beauty of lists like this one.
We will order the teams in descending order, from 12 down to 1, with a brief explanation as to why each team is placed where they are.
12. S.C. State, Sept. 7—The Bulldogs finished 5-6 in the FCS ranks last season. After an opener against the other Bulldogs—you know, from Georgia—this should be the best chance Dabo Swinney has all season long to get his youngsters some reps.
11. The Citadel, Nov. 23—These Bulldogs (yes, I know, there are too many Bulldogs on the schedule) finished in the middle of the pack in the Southern Conference a season ago. Clemson shouldn’t have much of a problem hammering The Citadel in anticipation of a showdown with South Carolina on the other side.
10. Boston College, Oct. 12—Boston College has a bunch of players back this season and a new identity under Steve Addazio’s watch. But many of these Eagles have seen a pair of butt-whippings at the hands of the Tigers. Things shouldn’t really change much this season.
9. at Virginia, Nov. 2—Mike London’s bunch has a difficult challenge this season. Many of the issues that existed last season remain, including a bit of upheaval at quarterback. The Cavaliers play against Georgia Tech the week before they host Clemson, which makes for two completely different challenges in scheming on the defensive end.
8. at Maryland, Oct. 26—The Terrapins brought a quarterback-less team into Death Valley in one of the more memorable games on Clemson’s slate in 2012. While Randy Edsall’s team is playing at home this time, it looks to be overmatched against the Tigers. Also, Sammy Watkins returns to the site of his coming-out party in a 2011 come-from-behind win.
7. Wake Forest, Sept. 28—The Demon Deacons remember all too well the opportunity that slipped through their fingers two seasons ago, when the Tigers clinched the Atlantic Division on the final play of a game Wake had in its grasp. A veteran team will enter Death Valley with revenge on its mind, but an extra couple of days to prepare will work in Clemson’s favor here. Plus, the Tigers are just better.
6. at N.C. State, Sept. 19—Clemson fans don’t need a detailed reminder about what happened the last time the Tigers tripped to Raleigh. Getting the Wolfpack early as new systems are installed should be a plus, but beating anybody on the road on a Thursday night is difficult, especially in a venue like Carter-Finley Stadium.
5. at Syracuse, Oct. 5—This game is as obvious a trap game as there is in the country. It will be Clemson’s first road contest of the season. Syracuse has two weeks to prepare. Domes are always a bit tricky to play in, and the Orange have the home field advantage. Syracuse is a tough team who likes to play ball control, which could frustrate the Tigers. Don’t sleep on this one.
4. Georgia Tech, Nov. 14—Paul Johnson’s offense is just not fun to deal with, particularly in a November matchup in primetime with a lot potentially on the line. Both teams have 12 days to get ready for this one, which does tend to help teams against the Yellow Jackets. Still, Death Valley has been kind to Tech over the past dozen years or so, which gives this game some added intrigue.
3. Georgia, Aug. 31—For a season opener, this game has tremendous implications. The winner vaults itself into the national championship conversation, while the loser faces an uphill climb. The Bulldogs have a potent offense and a young defense with a ton of question marks, so there should be plenty of scoring. I think the home crowd will be heavily behind the Tigers, but the caliber of opponent makes this game really tough.
2. Florida State, Oct. 19—Chances are high for this game moving to prime time. This game will most likely decide the Atlantic Division unless something crazy happens. The Seminoles will probably be comfortable with Jameis Winston at quarterback, and defensively, this team is stacked with talent. Again, the home crowd should be heavily behind the Tigers as they look to extend a five-game winning streak in Death Valley against the Seminoles, but the implications add a tremendous amount of pressure to the situation.
1. at South Carolina, Nov. 30—There is no question about it. The final game of the season will be the toughest test for the Tigers. It is the only team Dabo Swinney has struggled mightily to beat during his tenure at Clemson. It is the Tigers’ in-state rival. The best player in college football plays for South Carolina. The Gamecocks have two quarterbacks on the roster who boast wins over Clemson. Plus, the game is in Columbia, where the Tigers have lost back-to-back games and needed a buzzer-beating field goal to win in 2007. Good luck quantifying the intensity in this one.