Cory Mccartney
Thursday August 28th, 2008

Breaking down Saturday's nonconference clash at the Georgia Dome.

1. Clemson has tons of talent and tons of hype. Can it live up to its billing? The Tigers head into the Georgia Dome with their highest preseason ranking since 1991 and 15 returning starters, including James Davis, Cullen Harper and C.J. Spiller, who finished 1-2-3 in the ACC preseason Player of the Year voting.

This team firmly believes it's primed for a breakthrough. Players were given shirts with the words "History makers" on the back, and there are plenty of reasons to believe why this team could, indeed, make history. But that's not to say there aren't a few reasons why they couldn't be history.

Clemson has come painstakingly close the last three seasons to delivering its first conference title since 1991, including last season, when an overtime loss to Boston College kept the Tigers out of the ACC title game. But psychological hurdles aren't the only potential issues.

Tommy Bowden will be breaking in four new offensive linemen on Saturday, with center Thomas Austin the only returner. It doesn't matter how explosive Thunder (Davis) and Lightning (Spiller) are if Clemson can't win the battle in the trenches.

The defense, despite returning seven players from a unit that was No. 9 in the nation in total defense, has its questions with an all new linebacking corps. The most "experienced" LBs of the bunch -- junior Kavell Conner and sophomore Scotty Cooper -- have four combined career starts. The group is going to be tested early and often.

2. Ladies and gentlemen, Julio Jones is in the building. There's no arguing with the recruiting prowess of Nick Saban, who has brought in recruiting classes ranked 10th and first in two seasons at Alabama. The latest class includes five-star wide receiver/kick returner Julio Jones and linebacker Don'ta Hightower, both of whom who will be in the starting lineup Saturday.

Saban has said eight to 10 freshmen will play prominently against the Tigers but it's Jones, who will become the first 'Bama receiver to start his first collegiate game, that gets all the attention. It's only been augmented by a long touchdown catch in a recent scrimmage in which Jones caught the ball over his shoulder, then stiff-armed all-SEC safety Rashad Johnson.

Alabama returns nine starters on offense, including an experienced line anchored by massive left tackle Andre Smith, running backs Glen Coffee and Terry Grant and quarterback John Parker Wilson, but gone are WRs D.J. Hall, Keith Brown and Matt Caddell.

Jones could give the Tide the immediate punch it needs in the receiving corps. Many believe he's the team's best pass-catcher.

If he lives up to a tenth of his hype -- which includes radio personality Paul Finebaum already pimping him for the Heisman -- it could be a monumental debut.

3. Atlanta and the Crimson Tide: two things that don't bode well for the Tigers. Since Clemson joined the ACC in 1953, Hotlanta has been a city of horrors for the Tigers, who are 7-31-1 all-time in the Georgia capital. That figure includes trips to conference foe Georgia Tech and the Peach/Chick-fil-A Bowl, where the Tigers are 1-6. Since 1992 that bowl has been played in the Georgia Dome -- where they'll face the Tide on Saturday.

Things haven't been as bad under Bowden. He's 3-5 in Atlanta in nine seasons at Clemson, though his last victory came in the 2003 Peach Bowl against Tennessee. The Tigers came up short twice last season, falling to the Yellow Jackets and Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in overtime.

Historically, the Tigers haven't fared much better against Alabama. The Tide have won 11 straight meetings, including 56-0 in their last clash, which came in 1975. But unless one of those fans sporting Bear Bryant's houndstooth hat can channel his coaching ability, that history won't mean much.

What kinds of problems does Clemson's offense pose for defenses? I asked a coordinator who faced the Tigers last season to get an anonymous scouting report. Here's what he had to say:

"They present a lot of problems with their movement and different sets and formations ... you have to pick your poison with them.

"With [Spiller], they work to line him up in different places, so you try to go out and defend him and try to stop him from getting the ball. But when they get [Spiller and Davis] on the field, it presents a lot of matchup problems.

"We gave up big plays in the passing game. Harper puts the ball on the money. You put all your eggs into one basket to defend the run and they wind up hurting you throwing the ball.

"They've got speed. It's not just Davis and Spiller, it's down to the wide receivers and they've got a nice group of tight ends."

Clemson 24, Alabama 14. It would be a colossal disappointment for Bowden and the ACC if the conference's best team choked in a high-profile opener. But it's not going to happen. These Tigers are out to prove they're beyond tripping on their own feet, and a win in an atmosphere that will be the closest they've seen to a BCS game would be a solid start. Clemson's rebuilt offensive line could be an issue, but with so many weapons at the Tigers' disposal, getting in the backfield may not help 'Bama anyway.

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