An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential. This week, Clemson senior Tajh Boyd checks in at No. 4.
4. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
There are far worse fates in sports than that of a Clemson Tigers fan, but then again it's not easy to be universally known for failure. Not across-the-board, we-can't-win-any-games-or-championships failure, but an inability to fulfill high expectations.
That is Clemson football over the last 20 years: four- and five- and six-loss seasons, over and over, high expectations leading to lousy finishes, although with the opposite happening occasionally, too. Mostly, Clemson football has been unpredictable, the word "Clemsoning" making its way into the college football lexicon because of the program's habit of going down in flames in spectacular fashion.
Poor Clemson. Prior to last season, the Tigers finished outside the final AP Top 25 seven of last the eight times they were ranked in the preseason poll, including a 7-6 season in 2008 in which Tommy Bowden was fired after six games as they quickly fell from No. 9 to unranked. Dabo Swinney was promoted to head coach, and since then the Tigers have avoided that fate, although last year was the first year of the Swinney era in which they actually did start ranked (14th). They finished 11th.
It wouldn't be Clemson without some Clemsoning slipping in, of course, but last year was different. The Tigers equaled expectations, losing only two games, both of which they were expected to lose, to Florida State and South Carolina. Neither was a blowout, and Clemson finished with a dramatic last-minute win against top-10-ranked LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. For once, Clemson was supposed to be a top-15 team and actually was a top-15 team.
At the center of it all, Tajh Boyd has been a revelation.
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Clemson doesn't exactly have a rich quarterbacking history. Only three Tigers QBs have ever been drafted: Lowndes Shingler in 1961, Steve Fuller in 1979 and Charlie Whitehurst in 2006. Shingler never played a down and Whitehurst, a 3rd-round pick, has started four games in four seasons. Fuller is the only one to do anything, a 1st-round pick who started 42 games with a 28-41 touchdown-interception ratio in seven seasons. Clemson has a national championship (1981, the glory days of Danny Ford) and 16 conference titles, but it's not exactly been a hotbed for star quarterbacks. Boyd can change that trend.
Had he left early for the draft last year, Boyd would have been the first quarterback taken. Even with a much stronger class of 2014, he has an opportunity to work his way into the top 10 overall.
It helps that Russell Wilson has paved the way for him. Listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Boyd is a short, compact quarterback who likes to throw on the run. He's quick and smart as a runner, his rushing numbers (514 yards, 2.8 yards per carry) misleading because he takes too many sacks. (In college stats, sacks detract from rushing yards.) Clemson ranked 85th in sacks allowed in 2012, and while Boyd gained 769 yards rushing, he lost 255. Otherwise, he has a strong arm and the ability to succeed as a read option quarterback, making Wilson's NFL transition a good model to try to follow. He also has an engaging personality that will endear him to fans and NFL teams.
Just because he takes a lot of sacks doesn't mean he can't handle pressure. In fact, Boyd was arguably at his best in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU, when he faced relentless pressure and was sacked five times but still avoided turning the ball over, despite a remarkable 79 touches in the game (50 pass attempts and 29 rushes). He threw for 346 yards against an LSU defense that ranked 10th in yards per attempt allowed, and he made the biggest play of the game on a pinpoint 4th-and-16 strike to DeAndre Hopkins with the game on the line -- a throw that very few college quarterbacks could make.
By no means should we overrate bowl results, but the game was a sort of national validation for Boyd as a star quarterback, capping a brilliant junior season in which Clemson scored 41 points per game. He was the ACC player of the year, and the American Football Coaches Association named him its All-American quarterback.
Now he'll take aim at his first 4,000-yard season -- after back-to-back 3,800-yard, 30-plus-touchdown, 60-plus-percent-completion-rate campaigns -- although it still seems like he has been somewhat neglected nationally. Johnny Manziel is the biggest story in college football. A.J. McCarron has back-to-back national titles. Teddy Bridgewater is the best draft prospect. Braxton Miller went undefeated.
Boyd is the Clemson quarterback. And with Clemson, it's become natural to assume the sky will fall.
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Perceptions are not easy to shake in college football. Programs develop distinctive personalities, despite annual roster turnover, often tied to their coaches. Perhaps against the odds, Swinney has helped start to change things at Clemson, and last year was a big step.
Clemson went 6-7 in 2010. Since then, with Boyd as starter, the Tigers have gone 21-6 with an ACC championship (and the Orange Bowl debacle) and a bowl win over LSU. Boyd is the focal point of one of the most explosive offenses in America, averaging 9.1 yards per pass attempt with the help of receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. Hopkins left early for the draft, but the offense remains in solid hands as Watkins looks to recapture the success of his freshman season, while 6-foot-5 junior Martavis Bryant (305 yards on only 10 catches) tries to emerge in a larger role. Thousand-yard back Andre Ellington is also gone, but the running game will be in capable hands with senior Roderick McDowell.
Despite some attrition, all the pieces appear to be in place, and this season is Clemson's best chance -- its biggest window of opportunity before Boyd graduates, Watkins leaves for the NFL and offensive coordinator Chad Morris inevitably gets offered a head coaching job. Clemson will continue to put up 40 points with regularity, and in year two under Brent Venables' guidance, the defense will at least be serviceable, miles ahead of its performance in that infamous Orange Bowl against West Virginia.
The Tigers are ranked 8th in the preseason USA TODAY coaches' poll, and on Aug. 31, they open with a prime-time home game against Georgia in Death Valley, one of the best atmospheres in college football. "College GameDay" will come to town for only the second time. Expectations have hit a zenith.
In a past life, Clemson might lose to Georgia by four touchdowns. In 2013, it finally feels reasonable to expect something entirely different. Florida State and Georgia Tech come to Clemson, and the Tigers avoid Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina. Win against Georgia, and it's entirely possible they'll be undefeated entering a Nov. 30 showdown with hated South Carolina in Columbia.
But that's months from now. The eyes of college football are on Death Valley the first weekend, and it's not easy to hop on the Clemson bandwagon 100 percent as a national title frontrunner, when the Tigers' chances could end before September.
But if any quarterback can shoulder the weight of expectations at Clemson, the Tigers appear to have found him, finally. In fact, for once, betting on Tajh Boyd and Clemson to succeed almost seems safe.
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