By Scott Rhymer
Summer is now in full swing and the initial anticipation of the college football season is just now beginning to peek over the horizon.
Having grown weary of the expansion rumor mill, I thought it appropriate to start looking toward 2012 and ask the most obvious question in Tiger Nation: Can Clemson repeat as ACC Champion?
To repeat as champion, you have to win the division and get to the Championship Game. Winning the division, in most cases, is more difficult than winning the Championship Game.
Most of the initial analysis of the upcoming football season from the media will focus on the number of starters each team lost from their 2011 roster, key position battles, and star players that will help teams in the ACC in their push for the ACC Title.
What often gets overlooked in projecting preseason favorites for the ACC Title is scheduling. Who teams play, where they play them, and when they play them is often as important in predicting success or failure for an upcoming football season as that of returning players, preseason all-conference nominees, or coaching changes.
For many years, I have believed that the rotation of getting Georgia Tech, NC State, and Maryland at home is more beneficial to Clemson than the years when Clemson plays those schools on the road. While it is true that in the even numbered years Clemson has to travel to Tallahassee to face the Seminoles, that one game on the road does not weigh a schedule negatively compared to the benefit of getting those above mentioned teams at home.
Dabo Swinney has been the Clemson coach for 3 full seasons (I do not include the 2008 season when Swinney took over mid-season in the data).
During Swinney’s tenure at Clemson, the Tigers are 7-2 (.777) overall against the teams Clemson will play on the road this year (FSU, BC, Wake, and Duke).
During that same three year span, Clemson is only 7-5 (.583) against the teams the Tigers will host in Death Valley this year.
Maybe even more importantly than the overall record vs. those teams is to look inside the numbers with Clemson’s record against those teams on the road vs. home.
Clemson is 3-0 at home in Swinney’s first three seasons against ACC Teams that will come to Death Valley this year (GT, VT, Maryland, and NCSU). By contrast, the Tigers are only 3-4 against those same teams on the road. Obviously, the numbers spell out how Clemson has played well against those teams in Death Valley but have struggled to beat those teams on the road. Let’s not forget that number on the road was almost 2-5 had Clemson not miraculously pulled of the win in College Park last season against a pitiful Maryland team.
Clemson is 1-2 on the road against teams that the Tigers will play on the road this year (FSU, BC, Wake, and Duke). The one win was a comfortable win against Wake Forest and the two losses (last second field goal in Tallahassee and a bizarre game in Chestnut Hill against BC). The trip to Wake Forest this year will have an added level of difficulty because it is a Thursday night, and that is certainly something to factor in when analyzing the schedule. But the bottom line is that Clemson will more than likely be favored in all road games except Florida State during the 2012 school year.
Simply by the numbers, it seems to me Clemson is better suited to host GT, Maryland and NC State even with the fact that the Tigers have to travel to Tallahassee. Not to mention that Virginia Tech comes to Clemson. Regardless of the Tigers’ success in Blacksburg last year, nobody in their right mind would rather play the Hokies on the road as opposed to home.
So what about FSU and NC State, the only two teams that I believe are legitimate contenders for the Atlantic Division in 2012?
The Wolfpack have a tough draw in 2012, picking up Virginia and Miami from the Coastal Division in addition to their annual game with North Carolina. The Wolfpack have to play Miami, North Carolina, and Clemson on the road.
The Wolfpack are 6-3 the past three years against ACC teams that they will go on the road against this season, and 4-6 against those teams they host. On the surface, those numbers would favor the Wolfpack by placing teams they have struggled with as a home game. But the Wolfpack could potentially be underdogs in 3 of your 4 road games they play in, a recipe that spells multiple losses.
The Florida State Seminoles pick up Duke and Virginia Tech from the Coastal Division to go with their annual game against Miami. FSU has an easy home schedule (Wake, Clemson, BC, Duke) with the only serious challenger to knock off the Seminoles in Tally being Clemson. The Seminoles have struggled against those four teams on the road (3-4) the past three years, but are a perfect 3-0 when hosting those teams in Tally.
Like the Wolfpack, the road for the Seminoles will be a challenge in 2012. FSU goes to NCSU, Miami, VT, and Maryland. If you give the Seminoles the win in College Park, they would still be fortunate to escape the other three road games without two losses. The Seminoles are 7-3 overall against those four teams the past three years, including 2-1 on the road. But none of those games included a trip to Blacksburg, a place the Hokies rarely lose.
So while NC State and FSU have the bulk of their difficult conference games on the road, it is the exact opposite for Clemson. With the exception of FSU, Clemson’s road schedule features three games that the Tigers should be favored in. The Tigers also get the teams that have given Clemson so much grief over the past three years (GT, Maryland, NCSU) at home in addition to arguably one of the most talented teams in the conference (Virginia Tech).
While none of this guarantees anything for Clemson, FSU, or NC State; in looking big picture at all three schedules I believe Clemson has the best layout of the three.
While Clemson’s 2011 schedule was ominous and filled with potential pot holes that the Tigers were able to overcome, the 2012 ACC Schedule for Clemson seems to be a paved road ready for the taking.
And paved roads are generally easier to navigate than dirt roads.
Scott Rhymer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org