ACC: Martavis Bryant

Dabo Swinney said before the season that a lot of people would be asking him about Clemson's new receiving corps by the end of the year. Consider the Tigers' pass-catchers ahead of schedule.

Gone are Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant from last season. So, too, are DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown from the year before. But the depth of this young group has been evident through five games, with three different players catching 15 or more passes, and six different players hauling in touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeMike Williams
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsMike Williams showed his explosiveness last Saturday in Clemson's win over NC State.
Clemson leads the ACC in passing, averaging 335.8 yards per game, and the unit figures to only grow as the schedule eases and the adjustment to bigger roles continues.

"Not surprised, because we had a couple of them here this spring, Demarre Kitt and Artavis (Scott) came in January, I think that really helped those guys and I'm proud of then," Swinney said. "They're doing a nice job for us. Some of our young tight ends continue to develop. I really like the fact that we've been able to involve our running backs in the passing game as well, and a young guy like Germone Hopper, who's not a freshman, he's a sophomore, been around here a couple years, I think he's been a huge addition as well, and it's really just him he's finally bought into the way we do things here at Clemson. It's really good to see these him reap those rewards from buying in and working hard and being committed to being a great player."

Hopper has been a big-play threat, catching eight balls for 233 yards and two scores. Mike Williams has led the group, with the sophomore hauling in 21 catches for 520 yards and four touchdowns. He is tied with seven other ACC players for the league lead in receiving scores, and within the conference he trails just Florida State's Rashad Greene (576) in receiving yards and Miami's Phillip Dorsett in yards per catch (31.3).

Williams said he had a goal this season of reaching 1,000 yards receiving, something that appears well within reach with at least seven games remaining. He celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday in a 41-0 win over NC State by hauling in six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the game's first six minutes.

"I felt good," said Williams, who said he told quarterback Deshaun Watson before the game that he wanted two scores as a gift. "I felt like I played one of my best games here at Clemson on my birthday, so that was all pretty good."

Williams said Watson, the true freshman signal-caller, has been instrumental in the receivers' growth, from pulling players aside in practice to taking control in offseason 7-on-7 work.

"That's where the chemistry's developed," Swinney said, "the nuances of your passing game, and those guys spending that extra time, getting just reps, because ultimately it's about reps and just the chemistry that comes from getting those reps together is critical."

Scott is second on the Tigers in receptions (18), yards (305) and receiving touchdowns (three). He arrived to campus this past January with Watson, and the two are roommates. But the freshman admitted he did not envision this much success this soon for an offense facing so much personnel turnover, though it helped having eventual NFL receivers offer him advice on his visit and again around draft time.

"I talked to Sammy and Martavis," Scott said of last year's go-to threats. "They told me when you come in here to be ready, because you'll get an opportunity and when it comes take full advantage. Do the things you know you can do. Don't overthink it."

ACC in Round 1 of NFL draft

May, 9, 2014
5/09/14
9:00
AM ET
Let's take a quick look back at how the ACC did in the first round of the NFL draft.

As expected, former Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins was the first ACC player off the board, going to Buffalo with the No. 4 overall pick. Two of the best players in school history are now with the Bills, as Watkins joins C.J. Spiller in Buffalo. Watkins took over the NFL Instagram account for draft day, and posed for a selfie with commissioner Roger Goodell on the Radio City Music Hall stage.



North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron was a surprise choice at No. 10 to the Detroit Lions. Ebron is mostly a receiver dressed in tight end clothing, so his addition to an offense with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson could be very promising. The draft, however, was the second bit of life-changing news he got Thursday. The first? He proposed to his girlfriend, North Carolina women's basketball player Brittany Rountree, atop the Empire State Building.



Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald went to St. Louis at No. 13, ending the Panthers' two-year draft drought. He became the Panthers' highest-drafted defensive lineman since Sean Gilbert went third overall to the Los Angeles Rams in 1992.

Right behind him, Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller went to the Chicago Bears at No. 14, as the Hokies continued their #DBU tradition. They have had defensive backs selected in 15 of the last 16 drafts.

Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin became the first Seminole off the board, going to Carolina with the No. 28 pick. Benjamin became the 40th first-round selection in school history. You have to think Cam Newton is thrilled about this selection (after he overlooks what happened in the national championship game).

Though Louisville doesn't join the ACC until July, three Cardinals became first-round picks: Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Teddy Bridgewater, who just made it in with the final selection of the round to the Vikings.

So who's left for the second and third rounds Friday?
  • Four Florida State players to keep an eye on: Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks and Bryan Stork. At one point, Jernigan was a projected first-round pick, and he is attending the draft in New York. Though his stock had been sliding after the combine, reports of a failed drug test earlier this week may have contributed to his drop out of the first round.
  • Virginia offensive tackle Morgan Moses, also in New York, was a projected first-round pick but will have to wait another day to hear his name called.
  • Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, Clemson receiver Martavis Bryant, Clemson defensive back Bashaud Breeland, North Carolina center Russell Bodine and Virginia defensive end Brent Urban are all players to keep an eye on as well.
Clemson wide receiver Germone Hopper will miss the rest of spring practices to focus on his academics, according to a school spokesman.

Hopper is one of several receivers expected to help compensate for the early departures of Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant (a combined 2,292 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013) to the NFL. Hopper had 23 catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns from the slot receiver position last season.

In spite of the losses of Watkins and Bryant, Clemson still returns receivers who accounted for 48 percent of the passes and gained 41 percent of the yards. In addition to Hopper, the staff has high expectations for Adam Humphries, Charone Peake and Mike Williams.

Humphries had 41 receptions last season, third on the team, for 483 yards and two scores. Williams started three games last season and had 20 receptions for 316 yards (15.8 ypc) and three touchdowns. He had at least one catch in 10 of the 13 games. Peake played just the first two games of last season before suffering a torn ACL in a practice the week after the South Carolina State game. He played a big role in Clemson’s win over Georgia with five catches for 58 yards.

Clemson will have its first scrimmage on March 31.
Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins was as good as advertised when it came time to perform at the NFL scouting combine this past weekend.

Watkins seems to have solidified his spot as the No. 1 receiver available for the draft after posting a 4.43-second time in the 40-yard dash and posting top performances in the broad jump (10 feet, 6 inches) and bench press (16 reps) on Sunday. ESPN NFL expert John Clayton wrote that Watkins "was clearly the best receiving prospect and is a candidate to be a top-five pick. ... He catches the ball with his hands exceptionally well. He reminds me a lot of A.J. Green of the Bengals."

Meanwhile, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks named Watkins one of his five biggest combine winners on Day 2. ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter Nick Wagoner explains why the Rams need to take Watkins with the No. 2 overall pick.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/ Richard ShiroSammy Watkins seems to be soaring at the NFL scouting combine.
Another player garnering big-time attention at the combine is Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who ran a blistering 4.65 in the 40-yard dash Monday morning -- at 285 pounds.

Wowzers.

Donald continues to impress NFL scouts after his incredible All-American turn this past season. He had a great showing at the Senior Bowl and is now having a great showing at the combine. Not only did he record a fast 40 time, he had 35 reps on the bench press. Despite his small size for an inside player, Donald has the work ethic, athleticism and physical tools to make him appealing to any team. He continues to rise up mock draft charts. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay tweeted Monday:
Here is a look at some other top performers from ACC schools in the last several days:

  • Clemson receiver Martavis Bryant put up some impressive numbers, too. He clocked the fifth-fastest 40 time among all receivers at 4.42 and was in the top 10 in bench press (16 reps), vertical jump (39 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches). Wake Forest receiver Michael Campanaro also had some impressive numbers, ranking in the top 10 in the bench press (20 reps), vertical jump (39 inches), 20-yard shuttle (4.01 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.31). He also clocked a 4.46 in the 40.
  • In the running back drills, Andre Williams ranked No. 3 at his position in the broad jump (10 feet, 9 inches), No. 2 in the 20-yard shuttle (4.06) and No. 3 in the 60-yard shuttle (11.62) and tied for No. 4 in the vertical jump (38 inches). He clocked a 4.56 in the 40-yard dash, making him a top performer in five of the seven drills.
  • As for the quarterbacks, it was a mixed bag for guys from the ACC. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd drew mixed reviews again. Clayton said Boyd, "has a strong arm, but his release point is all over the place. Some of his throws came a little sidearm, while the longer throws exposed a loop in his delivery." Logan Thomas had excellent measureables -- tops among the quarterbacks in the 40 (4.61), vertical jump (35.5), broad jump (9 feet, 10 inches), No. 2 in the 20-yard shuttle (4.18) and No. 4 in the three-cone drill (7.05). But when it came time to the throwing drills, he was not as good. Clayton wrote, "Thomas has the body to be a great pro quarterback (6-6, 248 pounds), but he doesn't get his legs into his throws and was inaccurate."
  • Clayton writes that North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron "all but locked up the top tight end position with an official 4.6 40, best at the position. Speed has become an overwhelming requisite with tight ends having less blocking demands on NFL teams. Ebron's 40 could make him a top-15 candidate."
  • Miami punter Pat O'Donnell showed once again why he was regarded as one of the top workout warriors in college football. O'Donnell recorded 23 reps on the bench press and ran a 4.64 in the 40 -- fifth-fastest among offensive linemen, tight ends and special-teamers on Saturday.

ACC's lunchtime links

February, 20, 2014
2/20/14
12:00
PM ET
At long last, Bonnaroo is finally bringing Kanye, Elton John, Lionel Richie and Skrillex together in one place. Our long national nightmare is over.

ACC and the NFL combine

February, 11, 2014
2/11/14
4:00
PM ET
The NFL draft combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will be held from Feb. 19-25 and will feature workouts, medical examinations, psychological testing and interviews for the 335 invited prospects. The ACC has a total of 46 players who will participate, including at least one player from every school (we included Maryland and not Louisville in this post, because it is from the 2013 season). National champion Florida State led the league with eight players heading to the combine, but UNC was right behind with seven. Don't cry ... you're gonna miss some of these names next year. Good luck to these guys.

Here is the official list of the ACC attendees:

BOSTON COLLEGE (5)
CLEMSON (4)
DUKE (1)
FLORIDA STATE (8)
GEORGIA TECH (2)
MARYLAND (1)
MIAMI (5)
NORTH CAROLINA (7)
NC STATE (1)
PITTSBURGH (3)
SYRACUSE (2)
VIRGINIA (2)
VIRGINIA TECH (4)
WAKE FOREST (1)

The ACC has lost 10 players who have decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. It’s not a mass exodus, but their departures definitely leave some holes. Florida State is losing some talent, but Clemson arguably has the biggest shoes to fill, as the Tigers are losing their top two receivers from 2013, including All-American Sammy Watkins. With spring football around the corner, there will be plenty of competition throughout the league, but based on what we know now, here is the best guess at who the replacements will be for each of the ACC’s early entrees:

Leaving: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Jones
AP Photo/Phil SearsIsaiah Jones (right) caught only two passes as a freshman, but Kelvin Benjamin's departure means he'll have to play a bigger role.
The replacement: Isaiah Jones. He is 6-foot-4, but he lacks Benjamin's physical strength (he weighs about 35 pounds less). Christian Green also could be an answer after playing sparingly the past two seasons. He's 6-foot-2 and known for his speed. He had 26 catches for 450 yards as a freshman in 2011 but has just 16 catches for 190 yards in the two seasons since. As far as a true red zone target and receiver who can win the jump balls, tight end Nick O'Leary will likely get the bulk of the throws that went to Benjamin in 2013.

Leaving: North Carolina C Russell Bodine

The replacement: Lucas Crowley. As a freshman, Crowley made his collegiate debut against rival NC State. He played 11 snaps and graded out at 90 percent. An encouraging sign for UNC fans should be Crowley’s performance against Pitt, where he played a respectable game opposite All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He played 66 snaps at center in that game and had five knockdowns.

Leaving: Clemson DB Bashaud Breeland

The replacement: Garry Peters. He was one of Clemson’s rising stars at cornerback in 2012, but an injury last season set him back. He still played in 10 games and enters this fall with 54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 12 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 33 games (five starts) in his career.

Leaving: Clemson WR Martavis Bryant

The replacement: Mike Williams. The true freshman played in all 13 games and started three, finishing 2013 with 20 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His first career start came against Wake Forest, and Williams had a 14-yard touchdown. As a prep, he was rated the No. 3 player in South Carolina by ESPN.com. Williams has a lot of potential, and the Tigers will need him to reach it quickly.

Leaving: North Carolina TE Eric Ebron

The replacement: Jack Tabb. He played in 10 games at tight end and on special teams, and he also saw some time at linebacker. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and 10 tackles. UNC also signed two tight ends in the 2014 class, including one, Brandon Fritts, who enrolled in January. The other, Avery Edwards, is regarded as the top TE in North Carolina.

Leaving: Florida State RB Devonta Freeman

The replacement: Ryan Green. He played in all 12 games (no starts), and finished with 163 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. He showed some explosiveness in his limited playing time, as six of his carries went for 10 yards or more. His blocking and ability to take advantage of open holes still need to improve.

Leaving: Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan

The replacement: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He played in 13 games and started six alongside Jernigan at defensive tackle. He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also had two quarterback hurries. He made his first career start against Pitt and had a season-high three tackles against both Boston College and Maryland. He had one tackle in the national championship game.

Leaving: Syracuse RB Jerome Smith

The replacement: Prince-Tyson Gulley. He was granted a fifth season of eligibility and as of now is expected to play this fall. Gulley qualified for a medical hardship waiver because he broke his collarbone in 2011 and played just four games. He was third on the team in rushing in 2013 and finished with 456 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. He also had 15 catches and one receiving touchdown.

Leaving: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins

The replacement: Charone Peake. Watkins was one of a kind, and his record-setting production nearly impossible to duplicate, but Peake is the next man up. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver before he tore his ACL during a simple non-contact drill in practice on Sept. 10. Prior to the injury, Peake had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, second only to Watkins in both receptions and yards. In 2012, Peake had 25 receptions for 172 yards and two scores.

Leaving: Florida State RB James Wilder Jr.

The replacement: Karlos Williams. He moved from safety to tailback in Week 2 and finished his first season at the position with 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who scored once every 8.3 carries.

ACC's lunchtime links

January, 17, 2014
1/17/14
12:00
PM ET
Can't wait 'til offseason coaching carousel comes to a stop ...
The deadline to declare for the NFL draft has passed so let us take a look at the ACC players who have decided to turn pro:
Mel Kiper Jr. has several of these underclassmen going in the first round in his first edition of the 2014 NFL mock draft:
  • No. 5 Sammy Watkins to Oakland
  • No. 14 Timmy Jernigan to Chicago
  • No. 16 Eric Ebron to Baltimore
  • No. 22 Kelvin Benjamin to Philadelphia

Kiper took into account draft needs for each team when making his selections. To that end, he has Ebron rated higher on his Big Board, which ranks the Top 25 best players available in the draft. Kiper lists Ebron No. 7 there, and has called him "A QB's best friend." Bryn Renner would know.

Jernigan also is rated higher on the Big Board at No. 12 overall.

The NFL draft evaluation process has only just begun so all these mock drafts and big boards will change between now and the draft, which is in May. One constant, at this point, is Watkins as the top-rated ACC player headed into the draft. Barring unforeseen circumstances, his place at the top is not expected to change.

ACC's lunchtime links

January, 14, 2014
1/14/14
12:00
PM ET
Having fun this week looking back on 2013, but the links are looking ahead ...

ACC underclassmen watch

January, 8, 2014
1/08/14
11:00
AM ET
The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is one week from today. Let us take a quick look at who has already announced their intentions, and who is still mulling over their decision.

Turning pro

Also, a source told ESPN's Joe Schad that Florida State running back James Wilder Jr. will enter for the draft. Of these players who have already declared, only Watkins and Ebron are listed on the latest Mel Kiper Big Board. Watkins and Ebron are near locks to go early in the draft. But the prospects are less certain for the others who have already declared.

Still waiting on

Jernigan, Benjamin and Beasley are all listed on the Kiper Big Board. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Tuesday at his post-championship news conference he expects only a few players to leave early for the draft.

Also of note, Virginia Tech safety Kyshoen Jarrett announced on Twitter that he will return to school for his senior season.

Clemson offense must rebuild

January, 6, 2014
1/06/14
2:45
PM ET
Clemson has been through this before, losing top-tier talent to the NFL draft.

But when top receiver DeAndre Hopkins decided to turn pro after last season ended, everybody figured the Tigers would be just fine with Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins returning.

The twin losses of Watkins and Martavis Bryant to the NFL draft this year leave behind many more questions. Not only are the Tigers losing their top two receivers, they also are losing Boyd, their record-setting quarterback over the last three years.

That is a trifecta that could inevitably label 2014 a rebuilding year.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesWithout Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd, who will make Dabo Swinney smile in 2014?
Watkins' decision to leave was a no-brainer. The talented junior proved in the Discover Orange Bowl win over Ohio State that he will be a top 10 draft pick. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper believes Watkins could go as high as No. 2 when the draft rolls around in May.

There was not much more for him to accomplish at Clemson, either. Watkins tied Hopkins for career touchdown receptions (27), holds the single-season receptions (101) and career receptions marks (240) and single-season record for receiving yards (1,464). He would have been foolish to return.

Bryant's decision is another matter entirely. There is little doubt he could have improved his draft stock had he returned to school for another year, but Bryant cited his family as the reason he decided to leave. Bryant ended the season with 42 catches for 828 yards and seven touchdowns, but he has been mostly inconsistent for the bulk of his career and has only one year as a starter.

His size (6-foot-5, 200 pounds) makes him an intriguing prospect, but he has work ahead of him to get noticed. ESPN.com does not even have Bryant rated on its receivers evaluation page.

Moving forward, Clemson should have plenty of position battles headed into the spring. Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson are all in the mix to replace Boyd. Without Watkins and Bryant, Clemson will rely on some combination of veteran Adam Humphries, Charone Peake, Mike Williams, Germone Hopper and T.J. Green.

Williams played as a freshman this season and has the same size as the departing Bryan. He showed flashes throughout the course of the season. Green also shows promise. Peake is coming off an ACL injury and should be healthy for the start of the season. Humphries has been dependable and will be expected to do more.

The player who needs to step up most has to be Hopper, rated one of the top receiver prospects in the 2012 class. He has not quite lived up to his potential yet, and 2014 provides him an opportunity to become a go-to receiver. Clemson coaches have waited on the light to go on for him, and that probably is the case again now more than ever.

What Clemson has moving forward is talent, but little in the way of game experience. The key to replacing the three big-name skill players who have departed is to grow these players up in a hurry. The opener at Georgia will be here in a blink.
Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins will leave school early for the NFL draft, he announced officially Monday.

Watkins said in a statement:

"I am very thankful for the past three years at Clemson University that have enabled me to grow academically, athletically, and spiritually. After much prayerful consideration, I have decided to take the next step in pursuing my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL.

"I would not have this opportunity without the support and encouragement of my family, coaches, teammates, and the best fans in college football. No matter where my next steps may lead, I will always take pride in the PAW and will forever be a part of the Clemson family."

Watkins leaves Clemson with 23 school records, including single-season and career marks for receptions and the single-season mark for receiving yards.

Receiver Martavis Bryant and defensive back Bashaud Breeland also officially announced Monday they would forgo their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft.

No. 12 Clemson takes on No. 7 Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl on Friday. Here is a look at 10 reasons the Tigers could beat the Buckeyes.

1. Receiver advantage. Clemson seems to have a clear matchup edge with its receivers, and that could translate into big plays in the pass game. Sammy Watkins has had a terrific season, and he needs nine receptions to break the school career record and two receiving touchdowns to tie the school career record. He has reached 100 yards receiving in seven of 12 games this season and is going to be difficult to stop. Martavis Bryant, at 6-foot-5, gives the Tigers another big-play target. Ohio State has allowed 755 yards passing in its past two games.

2. Ohio State D in flux. Given all the issues the Ohio State defense has had, it is easy to believe the Tigers are in line to take advantage. Defensive end Noah Spence has been suspended for the game, leaving the Buckeyes without their best pass-rusher. Cornerback Bradley Roby is unlikely to play, and there is the possibility three new starters could be in the secondary against the high-powered Tigers.

[+] EnlargeBoyd
AP Photo/Richard ShiroClemson will need QB Tajh Boyd to be at his best against Ohio State.
3. Tajh's time. Tajh Boyd has had one of the best careers in Clemson history, but he did not play his best in losses to Florida State or South Carolina this season, so you have to think he will be extra motivated to finish his career with a win in the Orange Bowl. Boyd is fully capable of winning big games, as he showed against Georgia and LSU. Big-play Boyd needs to show up.

4. Vic Beasley. One of the more intriguing matchups in the game pits Clemson pass-rusher Beasley against All-Big Ten tackle Jake Mewhort. Beasley is tied for third in the nation with 12 sacks, and Mewhort said this week that Beasley presents a "unique challenge." Beasley is built differently from the pass-rushers Mewhort has faced in the Big Ten, using a blend of speed and athleticism to get after the quarterback. If he can disrupt Braxton Miller, Clemson will improve its chances of winning.

5. TFLs. One area where the Tigers have succeeded this season is in tackles for loss. Clemson has 112, which leads the nation, and needs seven more to tie the school record. Clemson must get into the backfield to try to limit the big plays Miller and running back Carlos Hyde can make.

6. Limited Ohio State pass rush? We have seen Boyd get flustered into making mistakes when he is under heavy pressure. But the Buckeyes' pass rush could be severely limited without Spence, who leads the team with eight sacks. Without Spence, more will be placed on the shoulders of freshman Joey Bosa, who has 6.5 sacks on the season.

7. Big plays. Tag this to go along with reasons 1-3. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boyd leads all AQ quarterbacks in completion percentage on throws of 20 yards or longer (55.9 percent) and has 14 touchdowns and two interceptions on such throws. Since 2011, Watkins has scored 17 touchdowns of 30 yards or more, tied for second most in FBS in that span.

8. Andre Williams effect. Clemson players said Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde reminds them of Boston College back Andre Williams, who won the Doak Walker Award and rushed for 2,000 yards. But the Tigers held Williams to 70 yards rushing -- one of his lowest outputs of the season -- giving them a boost of confidence going into the game.

9. No turnovers. Coach Dabo Swinney has been preaching for a month now -- no more turnovers. In losses to Florida State and South Carolina, Clemson turned the ball over a total of 10 times. Surely the message has sunk in by now.

10. Chick-fil-A Bowl. The 2012 Orange Bowl performance against West Virginia has been brought up every single day in South Florida, but Clemson believes its win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl last season is more indicative of what it can do on a big stage in the bowl game. Being able to win a game like that, against a top school from the SEC, has given this team the confidence to know it can do it again Friday against Ohio State.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is not afraid to make his feelings known. To some, this comes off as trash talk. To others, he is just being honest.

Simply put, Watkins does not hold back. So it should come as no surprise, then, that he told reporters after arriving for the Discover Orange Bowl, “I think I’m the best receiver in the nation. ... Overall I think I can’t be guarded. That’s just my mindset.”

[+] EnlargeWatkins
AP Photo/Richard ShiroClemson's Sammy Watkins, who has 10 touchdown receptions and averaged 14.6 yards per catch, is one of the top receivers in college football.
How Ohio State covers Watkins is one of the biggest keys to watch heading into the Discover Orange Bowl. Many believe Clemson has the unquestioned advantage with Watkins and his fellow receivers, specifically because the Buckeyes secondary has not played up to standards over the last two games.

That advantage seems to have grown even larger with news on Monday that Ohio State could be without starting cornerback Bradley Roby, rehabbing a knee injury. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell also confirmed the Buckeyes will start freshman Vonn Bell at nickel cornerback.

Three new starters could be in the Buckeyes secondary against the best receiver group they have faced to date, leaving observers to believe Watkins and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd are in line for a big day.

“I think our wide receiver group is top 5 in the country,” Watkins said Monday. “We've been playing good all year, not just catching the ball but blocking, taking care of the little things. We definitely have to come out and put on a show. Their defense is pretty good, but for our offense and wide receivers, we've got a better wide receiver corps than they've ever faced in their conference and we've definitely got to show it when we play them.”

Watkins has shown it all season long, rebounding from a down year in 2012 to have one of the best seasons in the country with 85 receptions for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns, leading the team in receiving yards, receptions, touchdowns, kickoff return yards and all-purpose yards.

Martavis Bryant ranks second on the team with 800 yards receiving and has shown flashes of brilliance. Their size alone -- Watkins is 6-1, Bryant is 6-5 – gives Clemson a huge edge. Fickell said of the receiver group, “The combination of size and speed is something that's really intriguing.”

Add in what has happened the last two weeks to the Buckeyes’ secondary. Ohio State gave up 451 yards in the air to Michigan -- the Wolverines’ second-highest total on the season -- and then 304 yards passing to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. That ranks as the highest passing total for the Spartans since their quarterbacks threw for 322 yards Sept. 8, 2012, in a blowout win over Central Michigan.

Ohio State ranks No. 103 in the nation in average passing yards allowed (259.5 ypg).

It’s easy to see why Clemson is penciled in to have the edge in the matchup.

“I don't think there's a lack of confidence from our DBs. We believe in ourselves,” Ohio State safety C.J. Barnett said. “But this is a chance to prove to the doubters -- a lot of doubters -- that we can play well and I think we have to go out there and prove it.”

Despite what seems to be an edge on paper, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not one of those doubters. After practice Monday, he downplayed the potential matchup advantage, saying, “People look at things like that statistically and say they're 100th or whatever in pass defense and you immediately say, hey, that's a great advantage. Well, we look at things a little bit differently. We take the curtain back and we see they've had some inconsistency at times, some mistakes and busts which have led to some things but also one of the things is people having to throw the ball because they can't run it.”

Ohio State ranks No. 6 in the nation in rush defense, but if the Tigers can have success passing the ball the way Michigan and Michigan State did, the run element might not matter. Plus, Watkins has vowed to have the best game of his season, in what most likely is his final game for the Tigers.

Though he says he will not make any announcements until after the bowl game, the junior is the highest-rated receiver on the board for the 2014 draft. Still, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has done his best to pitch Watkins on the benefits of staying. Namely: seniors get to travel first class on team flights.

“I reminded him of that this week as we got on the plane,” Morris said. “I said, ‘Just think, next year, when you get on a plane, you'll be able to sit in first class.’ Like he always does, he grins ear to ear. He's had a great career, and whatever his decision is, we're going to support him.”

Perhaps one final career game in an outstanding career awaits.

SPONSORED HEADLINES