Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Ball State (6-6)
South Carolina (11-2)
ACC home games
ACC road games
At Florida State
At Boston College
At Wake Forest
Gut-check time: Sept. 22 at Florida State. It’s on the road against the Atlantic Division front-runners. This is the game that could determine the division winner. Last year, Clemson beat the Noles, 35-30, in Death Valley and went on to win the ACC title. FSU played without injured starting quarterback EJ Manuel, though, and backup Clint Trickett kept the Noles in the game. With Manuel in the lineup, this game will feature two of the ACC’s best quarterbacks in he and Tajh Boyd. Will Boyd have what it takes to score on what should be one of the country’s best defenses?
Trap game: at Wake Forest (Oct. 25). No, Winston-Salem isn’t exactly as daunting as Blacksburg on a Thursday night, but if you remember, the Deacs came within a field goal of beating Clemson in Death Valley last year. Wake Forest is going to be a respectable team that could take the division by surprise this season. It has enough playmakers and experience on offense to improve upon last year’s 6-7 record. It will also have the confidence to know it can hang with the 2011 league champs.
Snoozer: Furman. Yawn. There’s only one FCS team on the schedule, and it shouldn’t be a problem.
Defining stretch: Sept. 22-Oct. 20. Games against Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech will determine Clemson’s place in the ACC race this year. The Tigers also have to travel to Boston College a week after playing in Tallahassee. Clemson has a bye week to prepare of the Hokies, but Virginia Tech will be looking for redemption after losing to Clemson twice last year, including in the ACC title game.
Final analysis: Two of the more important games on Clemson’s schedule weren’t even mentioned yet -- the opener against Auburn and the regular-season finale against rival South Carolina. Clemson will face Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, and coach Dabo Swinney will be looking to beat South Carolina for the first time in four tries. A win over Auburn would be huge because it would likely propel Clemson to a 3-0 start heading into the trip to Tallahassee. (FSU also has a great chance to start out 3-0 with possible wins over Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest.)
The game in Tallahassee will be important, but don’t forget about NC State on Nov. 17. The Wolfpack knocked off then-No. 7 Clemson a year ago and should again be good enough to win that game. This is a similar schedule to what Clemson faced last season, when it started out 8-0. Whether the Tigers can improve upon that success again depends on if they can handle Auburn and Florida State early.