College football preview: Nos. 12-10

AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File

12. Clemson

2011 record: 10-4 (6-2 ACC), first in Atlantic Division, Orange Bowl appearance

Key returners: QB Tajh Boyd (Junior), WR Sammy Watkins (Sophomore), RB Andre Ellington (Senior)

Clemson’s 2012 schedule

(MORE: See the Top 25)

Will the Clemson Tigers be mature enough this season to handle the big games?

In 2011, the young stars led the way with exciting plays in big games, riding an early 8-0 start all the way to the Orange Bowl despite a 1-3 finish to their regular season.

Their leaders in passing, rushing and receiving are all back for another year, and quarterback Tajh Boyd needs to be a better leader during adversity if the Tigers are going to repeat as ACC champions.

Wide receiver Sammy Watkins will miss the first two games due to a suspension. And with Clemson’s first game coming in Atlanta — a huge tilt against the Auburn Tigers — this suspension could really hurt the offense.

That puts the pressure on a young defense to hold the fort against Auburn’s questionable offense. Both offense vs. defense battles in that game should be fairly even, but Clemson might struggle without Watkins getting free down the field. Luckily, neither of the first two games (the second game is against Ball State) are ACC games, so the Tigers won’t be devastated by an early loss.

Clemson only has three games against teams ranked in the preseason top 25, but they are all crucial in their own way. On Sept. 22, the Tigers have a date in Tallahassee with Florida State, which is the first ACC game for both and will likely go a long way to decide the Atlantic Division champion. Then, they will host Virginia Tech on Oct. 20 and welcome South Carolina to Death Valley on the final Saturday of the regular season.

Next Page >> No. 11 South Carolina