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Maryland-Clemson First Look: Life Without Spiller

If you looked at the upcoming Maryland-Clemson game before the season, it wouldn't have been ridiculous to think that one team would be 4-1 and the other 2-3. It just so happens that the teams you might've expected to have each record have been flipped.

Yep, Maryland's 4-1 start is a nice little surprise, and Clemson's 2-3 start is undeniably disappointing. Of course, Maryland's probably not "4-1 good"; nor is "Clemson 2-3 bad".

All three of the Tigers' loses are of the mild variety. They were beating Auburn, now a top 10 team, on the road for most of the game until Cam Newton sparked a huge comeback and Clemson lost by three in OT. They fell by nine to Miami, and the game was close until Clemson turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter. And they lost to a hurting but still impressive UNC team in Chapel Hill by just five, even as they had 50 more total yards.

In all three games, it seems they played just as well as their opponents, if not better than them. There's no such thing as a good loss, but those three aren't bad ones. 

Maryland, of course, has beaten Navy, Morgan State, FIU, and Duke. Not counting Morgan, the average margin of victory is about 7. They're a yard away from being 3-2, with three very unimpressive wins. So yeah, the records don't count for everything.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's look at what Clemson brings to the table. Statistically, the Tigers are tough to describe. They don't do anything particularly well, but aren't particularly poor at anything, either. They do return Kyle Parker at QB after his great freshman season last year, but it's been rough going offensively since C.J. Spiller (and Jacoby Ford, to a lesser extent) left.

Parker can only do so much, especially with his inexperienced, lackluster receiving corps. Clemson's really struggled passing the ball, coming in at 81st in the country with fewer than 200 yards/game.

The running game has talent with Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington, a bit of a throwback to the Spiller/James Davis era of power and speed. Ellington's an electric, Spiller-type player; Harper's a lot bigger and, one would think, more powerful (though the guys at Shakin the Southland would disagree). Both are effective, but Ellington moreso than Harper; the former is averaging 6.6 yards per carry, the latter just 4.0 (and it's dropped in ACC play). Ellington's third in the ACC in rushing, and has had four plays of over 20 yards.

With the lack of passing firepower, Clemson will rely on their rushing game heavily. Nationally, it's a solid, if unspectacular, 38th. It's been revealed that Ellington will play more than Harper this week, so it'll be interesting to see if Maryland can slow him down as much as they did Noel Devine against West Virginia (who, outside of his 50-yarder, had just 81 yards on 26 carries).

Defensively, Clemson uses defensive force Da'Quan Bowers at DE to wreak havoc on passing games. A former five-star recruit and an athletic force, he's fourth in the country in sacks (6 in 5 games) and tackles for loss (11). He'll be lining up opposite R.J. Dill (or whoever Maryland decides to throw in at LT) and yes, you should be very afraid. He has a good chance at making Danny O'Brien very uncomfortable in the pocket tomorrow.

Past that, the Tigers' defense is, in a word, average. 47th at stopping the pass; 77th at stopping the run; smack-dab in the middle 62nd overall. They're in the middle of the road in turnovers forced, too. The only real stand-out feature is Bowers' ability to get pressure on the QB; the only damning one is their occasional inability to stop the run, and in their three losses that's hurt them: Miami and Auburn both had more than 170 yards on the ground, and UNC had 164. 

The only two real fatal flaws I saw were actually Maryland's, too: time of possession and 3rd down conversions (the offensive variety this time). They convert only 33% of their third downs, good for 100th in the country and a number even worse than Maryland's defense's 43% allowance rate. And they're almost as bad as Maryland in time of possession, which isn't an easy feat: they're 106th in TOP, and Maryland's 112th.

So, the encouraging news? Clemson is worst at what Maryland's bad at, so Maryland's biggest flaws might not be as big here. The bad news? They should probably be 4-1 right now, and there's not a real weakness anywhere else. Clemson's not a team with a distinguishing feature, but they're not really that bad at anything, either. Ellington and Bowers are both scary; Parker's an experienced QB. There's a ton of potential here; if the coaching comes together, Maryland will be fighting an uphill battle.