Wednesday, June 25, 2014 8:29 AM
Four game stretch might define the season
by David Hood
Senior Writer

The 2014 Clemson football team is the perfect example of a team that might need time to grow and develop, especially breaking in new players at the skill positions, but a four-week span early in the season might just decide Clemson’s bowl fate.

The offensive question marks beg for an easy slate to start the season and ramping up the competition as the season progresses. Start with an in-state FCS school, add in a mid-major somewhere along the way and maybe another easy game in the first three or four weeks, and ease into the ACC schedule.

This team doesn’t have that luxury, however, and while many will tell you that we will know all we need to know about Clemson’s ACC Championship Game chances after Clemson’s visit to Florida St. in week three, the three weeks following that game – all ACC games - just might decide the Tigers’ eventual bowl destination.

Clemson opens the season at Georgia and then returns home to face South Carolina St. in one of the “give an in-state school a check for getting blasted” games. Then the ACC schedule begins, and it won’t be easy.

Following an off week on Sept. 13th, the Tigers travel to Tallahassee to take on the defending national champion Florida St. Seminoles. Last season, Florida St. brought in a talented squad led by quarterback Jameis Winston and demolished the Tigers 51-14 in front of a national television audience.

The Seminoles have lost 18 players to the NFL draft the past two seasons – including seven this past May – but Florida St. has recruited well and still has plenty of talent to fill in the holes. Offensively, it starts with Winston and he has weapons in wide receiver Rashad Greene (76 receptions for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013) and tight end Nick O'Leary, a Mackey Award finalist who has 11 career touchdowns. Add in talent across the board on defense and Lou Groza Award winner Roberto Aguayo (he made 21 of 22 field-goal attempts) and the ‘Noles are flat out loaded.

The Golden Nugget casino released the early point spreads recently, and the Tigers are 17-point underdogs in this one.

The Tigers return home on Sept 27th to face a North Carolina team that is hard to figure out. The Tar Heels lost five out of their first six games in 2013 and looked ready to give in by late October. However, head coach Larry Fedora found a spark and the Heels won six out of their last seven games while averaging 40.5 points per game during that stretch. The problem I have with the Heels is that all of their wins were over a bunch of also-rans - Middle Tennessee, Boston College, NC State, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Old Dominion and Cincinnati – but several outlets have them ranked ahead of Clemson heading into the season and consider them a surprise team for 2014.

The last time the Tigers and Heels met, Clemson wound up with a 59-38 win in Death Valley in 2011. Because of the changes in ACC scheduling, the Heels make the return trip in 2014. The Heels open with Liberty, San Diego St. and East Carolina. If Clemson is 1-2 and hurting in the confidence department, is a UNC win out of the question? The Golden Nugget has Clemson a 4-point favorite.

The Tigers stay within the friendly confines of Death Valley the next week, hosting N.C. State in the renewal of the annual Textile Bowl. The Tigers have won nine out of ten in the series, and two straight after losing 37-13 to the Pack in 2011 in Raleigh. The last time the teams met in Clemson, it was a track meet or a shootout or whatever you want to call it as the Tigers escaped with a 62-48 victory.

The Wolfpack went 3-9 in Dave Doeren's first year in Raleigh, but injuries and a lack of talent turned a 3-1 start into an 0-8 finish.
The Pack have more talent this season – their secondary has potential – but are still very young across the board and you would figure the Tigers would be heavily favored. Right now, the Golden Nugget has the Tigers favored by 23.

However, despite the odds and despite the recent success Clemson has had over N.C. State, the Pack always play Clemson tough. Last year’s contest in Raleigh was a lot harder than it should have been.

The final game in the early stretch is also at home as the Tigers host Louisville. The Cardinals will be playing their first year in the conference, have a new/old coach in Bobby Petrino and lost a big playmaker in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Petrino is a villain in the minds of many, but the man knows how to win college football games and his team won’t be an easy out. Todd Grantham is the new defensive coordinator at Louisville, and he saw Clemson’s offense first hand last year when he was at Georgia. Can Petrino’s coaching and offensive philosophy give the Tigers a headache in early October?

It’s four games, and the Tigers are favored in three of them as of right now. Is 3-1 a “win” for the program? Would 2-2 mean a lesser bowl? It all remains to be seen, and part of the fun of looking ahead in the summer is guessing how things will play out. But I’ve been around long enough to know that June guesses lead to September and October misses.

David Hood can be reached at davidhood@tigernet.com