Sometimes a team can catch lightning in a bottle and put together the perfect game at the perfect time.
The fact that Clemson won the College Football Playoff championship on Monday night wasn’t a surprise. The Tigers were clearly one of the two best teams in the nation, and as it turned out, the best team in the nation.
The way they beat Alabama? That was a surprise. From the 30 unanswered points to the physical and mental beatdown, the 44-16 final score makes the game seem closer than it was — and it was the worst defeat Nick Saban has suffered at Alabama.
But can Clemson turn 2 out of 3 national titles into 3 out of 4? Absolutely. The machine that Dabo Swinney has built is as stable and strong as any in college football and that includes Alabama.
The 2019 version of the Tigers will be very tough to topple.
The offense will light up scoreboards, win trophies
Clemson averaged 44.3 points per game in 2018, fourth-best in the country. Expect the Tigers to average well over 40 points and 500 yards a game in 2019, too. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be everyone’s Heisman Trophy favorite and will certainly garner a lion’s share of the media coverage and magazine covers during the offseason.
Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster will be the top two running backs on the depth chart again. The Tigers’ top three receivers — Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers — will return to Death Valley as well. Reserve receivers Derion Kendrick and T.J. Chase will be in line for increased touches with Hunter Renfrow graduating. Incoming 2019 recruits Frank Ladson (5-stars) and Joe Ngata (4-stars) are top 10 receiver prospects nationally and will provide extra depth. Both are big targets, just like Ross and Higgins. Ladson is 6-4, Ngata 6-3.
The offensive line will lose stalwarts Mitch Hyatt and Justin Falcinelli to graduation. Jackson Carman, a class of 2018 5-star prospect from Fairfield, Ohio, is expected to move in for Hyatt at left tackle and the Tigers could move starting right guard, Gage Cervenka, to center to replace Falcinelli and put senior Sean Pollard at right guard. Left guard John Simpson and right tackle Tremayne Anchrum will be seniors with plenty of experience.
The front seven will be talented, but young and inexperienced
Defensively there will be a bit of a drop-off. No team can replace five defensive linemen that are likely to get drafted in one season without a noticeable drop in productivity.
Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Albert Huggins and Austin Bryant have played their last game at Clemson and it’s likely that redshirt junior Clelin Ferrell will turn pro as well.
Clemson has plenty of intriguing prospects ready to replace that dominating group. Xavier Thomas, a class of 2018 5-star prospect from Florence, S.C., is the name to watch among the group. Another class of 2018 5-star prospect, K.J. Henry, is ready to be unleashed after seeing reserve action in four games before being redshirted.
Other highly-touted reserves include rising juniors Justin Foster (4-stars) and Nyles Pinckney (4-stars) and Class of 2019 top 200 national prospect Tyler Davis from Apopka, Fla. There will be plenty of talent on the defensive line in Clemson, but they will have to grow up fast.
Isaiah Simmons and Tre Lamar return at linebacker, but Clemson loses the other four players on the two-deep to graduation, so there will be plenty of opportunities for young players to emerge. Class of 2018 4-star prospect Mike Jones Jr. is a name to watch as are Class of 2019 4-star recruits Bryton Constantin and Vonta Bentley.
Secondary could be a strength … or not
If Trayvon Mullen decides to return for his senior season, Clemson’s secondary is easily the strongest part of its defense. If Mullen goes, the secondary still has plenty of experience with returning starters A.J. Terrell, K’von Wallace and Tanner Muse, but they aren’t as good as Mullen.
Kyler McMichael, another 4-star, got plenty of snaps as a true freshman and will be deep in the rotation in 2019. The Tigers’ top recruit in their 2019 class is 5-star prospect Andrew Booth from Lawrenceville, Ga., the No. 2 cornerback in the country. And 4-star cornerback Sheridan Jones is a top 150 recruit who will look to get in the rotation as well. Once again, high on talent and short on experience.
The schedule is Texas A&M plus 11 victories
Clemson will play the second half of its home-and-home with Texas A&M in 2019 and it should be the Tigers’ toughest game. Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney have a great rivalry with Dabo leading 5-4 and winning the past four games. Fisher teams have always played Clemson tough though, including last year’s 28-26 Tigers win in College Station.
Clemson only leaves the Carolinas twice next season with trips to Syracuse and Louisville. The rest of the conference schedule of Georgia Tech, Boston College, FSU, Wake Forest, N.C. State and UNC doesn’t look very daunting.
There is the year-end battle with South Carolina, but the Gamecocks have lost 5 in a row to Clemson.
Repeating is tough …
Three teams come to mind when comparing them to the 2019 Clemson Tigers (on field, not necessarily off the field).
1. The 2005 USC Trojans were an offensive juggernaut with Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White among others to average a ridiculous 53.2 points per game. They scored at will and enjoyed the lives of Hollywood celebrities in their downtime. Defensively they had holes and had the tendency to give up big plays and points. Leinart won the Heisman in 2004 and Bush won it in 2005, but eventually the 2005 Heisman runner-up, Texas Longhorns quarterback Vince Young, ended the Trojans’ run with a memorable performance in the 2006 Rose Bowl
2. The 2014 FSU Seminoles weren’t the offensive power that the 2005 Trojans were, but they did score 37 or more points in 7 games. Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner, had his moments on and off the field, but despite the distractions the Seminoles escaped with a number of close victories and earned a No. 3 seed in the first College Football Playoff. The Seminoles were a team destined to crashed hard and they did, to the tune of a 59-20 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl semifinal.
3. The 2018 Alabama Crimson Tide. And why not? A defending national champion with an explosive offense and a defense with plenty of questions but few teams good enough to challenge them? Sound familiar? Maybe 2019 will bring us Round 5 of Clemson-Alabama and a chance for Tua Tagovailoa to redeem himself and get a measure of revenge against Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers. Wouldn’t that be something?