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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

College football top 25 countdown: No. 7 Clemson

Tigers and quarterback Tajh Boyd are ready to answer their critics, especially South Carolina defensive star Jadeveon Clowney.

August 21, 2013|By Chris Dufresne
  • Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd led the Tigers to an 11-2 record and a victory in the Chik-fil-A Bowl over Louisiana State.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd led the Tigers to an 11-2 record and a victory… (Mark Crammer / Associated…)

This could be the year Clemson gets over the program slump hump and wins its first national title since 1981.

Most years, we can't wait for a season to get started. But with Clemson we also can't wait for it to end.

The 2013 public relations campaign recently got back-loaded when Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina's behemoth defensive lineman, unloaded on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.

The schools have had a rivalry dating to post-Reconstruction and Clowney was happy to contribute to the conversation.

"You can see in his eyes that he's scared of our D-line," Clowney said of Boyd at Southeastern Conference media day this summer. "He is scared every time we play them."

South Carolina has won four straight in the series and has been an impediment to Clemson's becoming even the best team in the state.

Boyd did struggle in last year's 27-17 loss to the Gamecocks, completing only 11 of 24 passes for 183 yards.

Clowney had 4.5 sacks in the game in what was a tuneup for his knocking Michigan back Vincent Smith's helmet off in the Outback Bowl.

Boyd doesn't have to take any of this as an NFL-eligible star coming off a season in which he threw for 36 touchdowns and ran for 10.

Boyd took the Matt Barkley down-and-out route and decided to come back for his senior year. Let's hope it works out better for Boyd than it did for Barkley, who was injured and devalued after a spectacular blind-side hit courtesy of UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.

Explaining why he returned, Boyd said, "I personally want to be the best player, I want us to be the best team we can possibly be, so why not try to go out and give one last shot at it?"

It would be something if South Carolina and Clemson were both undefeated when the teams meet Nov. 30 in Columbia.

A lot can happen between now and then, but this does look like the best team Clemson has fielded in a quarter of a century.

The Tigers finally got rid of the "choker" label last season with an 11-2 record capped by an emotional 25-24 win over Louisiana State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. It was a huge turnaround for the team that got embarrassed, 70-33, by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl the year before.

Clemson entered the off-season with momentum and respect. The Tigers were picked not only to win the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division, they were favored to win the ACC championship.

Boyd, the returning conference player of the year, is surrounded by talent. Junior receiver Sammy Watkins should rebound from a sophomore-slump year plagued by injuries and off-field issues. The defense should continue to improve under second-year coordinator Brent Venables.

The schedule comes down to three key pivot points: the Aug. 31 opener against Georgia, a midseason ACC monster mash against Florida State and the closer at South Carolina.

Coach Dabo Swinney says Clemson won't truly be respected until it can post "not just one good season, but three, four, five, six quality seasons together."

Boyd versus Clowney, unfortunately, will have to wait.

"No," Boyd said, just to set the record straight, "I'm not afraid of him. ... Again, that will all take care of itself."

Top 25 so far: 25. Oklahoma; 24. Wisconsin; 23. Fresno State; 22. UCLA; 21. Texas A&M; 20. Notre Dame; 19. Oregon State; 18. Oklahoma State; 17. Arizona State; 16. Nebraska; 15. Louisiana State; 14. Florida State; 13. Michigan; 12. Boise State; 11. Texas; 10. Northwestern; 9. Florida; 8. Louisville.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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