NCF Nation: Mackensie Alexander

Take a glance at the latest Way Too Early Preseason Top 25 from colleague Mark Schlabach, and one thing becomes pretty clear: Ohio State and TCU are the obvious top two teams in the country.

Beyond them? The field is completely wide open, presenting a huge opportunity for Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney.

That’s right. The Tigers -- the only ACC team in the top 10 -- could very well be dark horse contenders to make the College Football Playoff. Here are a few reasons why.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe health of quarterback Deshaun Watson will be a major key next season for Clemson.
1. Quarterback. Look at the teams ahead of Clemson. Five of them -- Alabama, Baylor, Oregon, Georgia and UCLA -- will all have new starting quarterbacks. That automatically puts a question mark next to each team. Alabama takes perhaps the biggest hit on offense: The Tide have to replace their top quarterback (Blake Sims), running back (T.J. Yeldon is gone, but Derrick Henry returns) and receiver (Amari Cooper).

Clemson, meanwhile, should return a completely healthy Deshaun Watson, who is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab from a torn ACL. The biggest question mark here is whether Watson can stay healthy for the entire season. He sustained three different injuries in his first year on campus, and the Tigers were completely handicapped when he was on the bench. A healthy Watson gives Clemson a good shot at being in playoff contention.

2. Schedule. Clemson has to play four teams ranked in the Early Top 25, plus in-state rival South Carolina. Three of the games against ranked opponents are at home -- Notre Dame on Oct. 3; Georgia Tech on Oct. 10; and Florida State on Nov. 7. Louisville on Sept. 17 and South Carolina on Nov. 28 are on the road. On paper in February, the schedule looks strong enough to vault the Tigers into contention if they are unbeaten deep into October.

3. Uncertainty with everyone from 3-9. Schlabach has USC ranked No. 3 and Alabama ranked No. 4. There is little doubt the Trojans are one of the most talented teams in the country, so this could be the year they get back into the national championship conversation. But there remain many unknowns about Steve Sarkisian as a head coach. Is he on an elite level? Can he put all the talent together into a playoff run?

Alabama has holes, too, but we have become so programmed to automatically include the Tide in any and all playoff discussion that there they are, at No. 4. Michigan State has made its name on defense. But the brains behind that group, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, is now head coach at Pittsburgh. Georgia … do we really need to go into how the Dawgs underachieve every single season? (Much more than Clemson!)

Yes? Well, OK. … Since 2008, Georgia has finished higher than its preseason top 25 ranking just once; the Bulldogs have lost three or more games six times over that seven-year span. That should automatically knock them from way too early contention.

Clemson has won 10 or more games four straight years and counting. Yes, the Tigers have essentially their entire No. 1-ranked defense to replace. But there was so much depth on the defensive line the past two years, the hope is that the backups can step in and become starters without a huge drop off. Shaq Lawson has big-time potential. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander is a rising star.

4. Offense rules. If last season is any indication, teams with superior offenses are the ones that now have an edge. Ohio State, Oregon and Florida State made the College Football Playoff with offenses that were better than their defenses. Including Alabama, all four teams that made the playoff had offenses that ranked in the top 35 in the nation, including two in the top 10. But on defense, none ranked in the top 10; Oregon and Florida State ranked below 60.

If this trend continues, then Clemson could have an edge even with a defense that takes a step back. In addition to returning Watson, the Tigers bring back their top three rushers (Wayne Gallman, C.J. Davidson, Adam Choice PLUS a healthy Tyshon Dye) and top three receivers (Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Germone Hopper PLUS Charone Peake). Chad Morris is gone, but co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott have been learning under him over the past four years. Both have produced multiple All-ACC players during their time with the Tigers.

Clemson is far from a finished product. There is plenty of uncertainty with the Tigers, too. But no more than the other teams jockeying for a College Football Playoff spot.

Clemson Tigers season preview

August, 5, 2014

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Clemson Tigers:

Key returners: DE Vic Beasley, DT Grady Jarrett, LB Stephone Anthony

Key losses: QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, RB Roderick McDowell

Most important 2014 games: Aug. 30 at Georgia, Sept. 20 at Florida State, Nov. 29 vs. South Carolina

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesAll-ACC defensive end Vic Beasley returns to the Clemson defense for his senior season.
Projected win percentage: 72.5 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 8½ wins

Instant impact newcomers: QB Deshaun Watson, CB Mackensie Alexander. Coach Dabo Swinney has repeatedly said Watson will play this season behind starter Cole Stoudt. Simply put, Watson’s athleticism makes him too valuable to leave on the bench, and the belief is he will get better as the season goes on. Alexander, a redshirt freshman, is listed among the starters on the depth chart and is expected to have a breakout season.

High point from 2013: Beating Ohio State 40-35 in the Discover Orange Bowl. The season-opening win against Georgia was big too, but the victory over the Buckeyes was one of the best under Swinney. The game was intense, competitive and thrilling and featured one of the best single-game performances of the season from Watkins.

Low point from 2013: Losing to Florida State 51-14. Clemson was the preseason choice to win the ACC but saw its conference championship hopes vanish after an embarrassing loss to the Seminoles. The Tigers were never even in the game, falling behind 27-7 at halftime. Boyd had three turnovers in one of the worst games of his career.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Watson emerges as one of the best freshmen in the nation, answering all questions about an offense supposedly in transition. His emergence, combined with a top-five defense, helps propel Clemson further than everybody predicts. Clemson ends up with a winning record against its toughest triumvirate (Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina) and snags a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The offense has a tougher time than expected replacing Boyd, Watkins, McDowell and Martavis Bryant, failing to generate much production. The defense is not as good as advertised, thanks to inconsistency at linebacker and in the secondary. Losses to Georgia and Florida State mean a 1-2 start, and things only get worse with additional losses to Louisville and South Carolina. Clemson finishes with fewer than 10 wins for the first time since 2010.

They said it: “I personally believe, when it's all said and done, we're still going to be one of the best offenses in the country because I love the personnel we have. That's what makes college football fun. Everybody looks at what has left, and they make an assessment because they don't really know who these guys are that are coming in. Good players have to lead and new guys emerge, and we've got good personnel and good candidates to fill some of those voids.” -- coach Dabo Swinney

Five things: Georgia-Clemson

August, 30, 2013

No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.

Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:

Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.

Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.

Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).

Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).

Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.

Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.

Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.

Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.

Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.

Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.

Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.

Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite big-name offensive talent, Georgia-Clemson could come down to young defenders like Tray Matthews.
Georgia’s quarterback caught plenty of guff over shortcomings against ranked opponents well into last season. He’s 3-11 in his UGA career against teams that ended the season ranked in the AP Top 25 with 23 touchdowns versus 16 touchdowns against those teams. He’s 25-2 with 72 touchdowns and 16 interceptions against teams that finished unranked.

The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.

Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.

After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.

But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.

It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.

Here's a quick look back on the ACC's signing day highlights:

Best closer: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. The Tigers reeled in their top prospect, CB Mackensie Alexander, on Wednesday. The five-star recruit should be able to contribute immediately, and it’s a position in which Clemson is thin. Swinney also beat Georgia for ESPN 150 OG Tyrone Crowder, who also announced on Wednesday. Swinney came into signing day with a reputation as a closer, and he added to his résumé Wednesday with two more elite recruits.

Biggest surprise: Alexander. He had taken visits to Mississippi State and Auburn in January, leading some to think the SEC had the edge. His twin brother sat there wearing his Auburn hat as Alexander announced his decision. He had been very quiet during his recruiting process, though, so nobody was really sure which direction he was leading. He added to the drama when he pulled out a Mississippi State hat, then a Clemson hat, before revealing his choice with a second Clemson hat.

Biggest winner on signing day: Florida State won big-time on signing day, getting four ESPN 300 prospects -- three of them in the top 150. The Seminoles won two of them over in-state rival Miami, making those signings even bigger. The day started with the No. 6 overall player in the nation, Matthew Thomas, announcing for the Noles. They then got the No. 4 cornerback in the nation, Jalen Ramsey, to flip from USC. ESPN 150 defensive tackle Keith Bryant chose Florida State over Miami next. ESPN 300 linebacker E.J. Levenberry rounded out the day.

Who flipped/biggest loss: Miami ended up losing out on some of the biggest targets it coveted: Thomas and Bryant are headed to Florida State; ESPN 300 defensive tackle Jay-nard Bostwick chose Florida; and running back Alex Collins eventually ended up at Arkansas. Bryant and Collins were one-time Miami commitments. These all were double-stings: Every single one of these players hails from South Florida; the Canes lost some to their bitter in-state rivals; and former coach Randy Shannon just so happens to be an Arkansas assistant. Miami did get ESPN 150 receiver Stacy Coley and ESPN 150 linebacker Jermaine Grace to sign, but this class could have been better.
Clemson already had a top-15 class when signing day began, but the Tigers made it even better with some major pickups Wednesday.

The most notable -- cornerback Mackensie Alexander, the No. 4 overall prospect in the nation. He joined ESPN 300 athlete Adrian Baker and three-star safety Korrin Wiggins as big additions Wednesday, easing any disappointment there may have been when ESPN 150 defensive tackle Montravius Adams committed to Auburn over Clemson.

Alexander was the biggest commitment the ACC got in the early going Wednesday, and fills a major need for the Tigers, who emphasized upgrading their secondary. Though there was some thought that he and his twin brother, Mackenro, could end up going to the same school, Mackensie maintained that was not necessarily the case.

That was the only clue folks got about the recruiting process. Mackensie kept his thoughts and options to himself, never once saying where he may or may not be leaning. But he did have Clemson on his list of finalists, and many thought he would end up choosing the Tigers. During his announcement he pulled out two hats -- Clemson and Mississippi State -- before donning the orange one. His brother ended up choosing Auburn.

Clemson now has five players among the ESPN 150 and nine among the ESPN 300, and is getting major defensive help. In addition to Alexander, the Tigers signed the No. 3-ranked inside linebacker Ben Boulware, the No. 8-ranked outside linebacker Dorian O'Daniel and the No. 10-ranked defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko, who is already enrolled.

As for the other news Wednesday, Baker chose Clemson over Oklahoma. The former Florida State commit is ranked No. 197 on the ESPN 300. Wiggins was a long-time North Carolina commitment, but flipped his decision to the Tigers on signing day. He is rated the No. 30 safety in the nation.

Clemson could wind up with one more member in its class. ESPN 150 offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder will announce his choice between the Tigers and Georgia at 4:05 p.m. ET.

CB Mackensie Alexander picks Clemson 

February, 6, 2013
Cornerback Mackensie Alexander of Immokalee (Fla.) High School, the No. 2 corner and No. 4 overall prospect in the ESPN 150, selected Clemson on Wednesday in a ceremony at his high school. Alexander, the No. 2-ranked player in Florida, visited Auburn and Mississippi State late but settled on a school to which he made an official visit in November.

He said he connected with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.

“He’s a church guy like me,” Alexander said in an interview on ESPNU. “I trust in them guys. I’m going to be in a great position.”
We are only hours away from fax machines screeching off the hook. National signing day officially starts at midnight, but the real fun kicks off Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. ET, when ESPNU will bring the announcement ceremony of the nation's No. 1 recruit -- defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (Loganville, Ga./Grayson).

ESPNU will have wall-to-wall coverage of recruiting's version of Christmas morning all day, as 18 ESPN 300 prospects will announced their college destinations live on air.

Here's the complete schedule for ESPNU's coverage of live announcements:

NSD TV announcement schedule

February, 1, 2013
National signing day is just around the corner on Feb. 6. That day, a number of the nation’s top football recruits will announce their college destinations, and 18 ESPN 300 prospects are scheduled to do so on ESPNU.

Below is the full schedule of announcements on ESPNU, which kicks off with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Robert Nkemdiche, making his long-awaited decision at 7:30 a.m. ET.

Note: All times are Eastern