Why Clemson is the ACC's biggest Playoff threat to the SEC
Clemson was expected to deal with a decline in 2017, but despite the loss of uncrowned Heisman Trophy winner Deshaun Watson, the Tigers made the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season.
However, it was in the national semifinal where the Tigers’ quest to repeat at national champions fell short in a 24-6 loss to Alabama.
The good news for Clemson fans is that the Tigers will have one of the best defenses in the nation and arguably the best defensive line in the past decade. If Kelly Bryant, or whoever wins the quarterback job, can push the right buttons on offense, the Tigers should be the best team in the ACC and return to the CFP for the fourth consecutive year.
Here are four reasons Clemson will return to the CFP:
NFL on DL
What can you say about the defensive line that wasn’t already said about the 1985 Chicago Bears? Clemson shared the national lead with 46 sacks in 2017, and quarterbacks should feel just as uneasy about 2018.
Dexter Lawrence is everything one would expect the former No. 1 prep player in the country to be and is considered a sure fire top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Christian Wilkins should probably be in an NFL training camp right now. I can’t imagine his insurance policy in anything less than $10-15 million for coming back. Austin Bryant, Albert Huggins and Clelin Ferrell make up the rest of the primary players on the line and good luck finding a better group.
Experience on OL, RB
The Tigers return All-ACC tackle Mitch Hyatt and a couple of other starters from a unit that continued to get better as the 2017 season went along. There should be no need for a slow start this year with the experience returning. The strength of Clemson’s offense is the running backs where Travis Etienne should churn out 100-yard games in total offense if he gets 10+ touches a game while Tavien Feaster provides a nice complement as a bigger back that powered his way to a 6.3 yards per carry in 2017. Adam Choice could probably start at a lot of Power 5 programs but has stayed loyal to Clemson and carved out a role as a rotational back and special teamer.
The winning culture is a real thing. Those who thought Clemson would be a flash in the pan and fizzle out once Watson left were wrong. The Tigers are a much deeper team across the board than they were three years ago when this run of excellence began. Recruiting has picked up accordingly. The Tigers’ 2018 class included five 5-stars and was ranked No. 7, the highest under Swinney. Clemson is expected to compete for a national title and some expect them to win it this year. The Tigers no longer run from those expectations; they embrace them. Much like the great teams of the previous decades, Clemson has won many of its games before stepping on the field.
The Tigers play Texas A&M (and old coaching nemesis Jimbo Fisher) on the road but early in the season when the Aggies will still be adjusting to their new coach and schemes. No back-to-back road games. Florida State is on the schedule later in the season and in Tallahassee, but the Seminoles are probably a year or two away. No Miami on the regular season schedule while N.C. State, Louisville and South Carolina have to come to Death Valley. Anything less than 11-1 should be considered a great disappointment.
For every good, there has to be some bad. So here are three reasons Clemson could miss out on the CFP:
Questions at secondary
The Tigers’ defensive line is so dominant that the secondary should be protected most of the time but the Tigers will face some dynamic quarterbacks this season like Syracuse’s Eric Dungey, N.C. State’s Ryan Finley and FSU’s Deondre Francois who have the ability to buy extra time and force the Tigers’ secondary to hold coverage for longer periods. Dungey lit up the Tigers for 339 total yards and three touchdowns while Finley threw for 338 and three touchdowns in a loss. Clemson DB Trayvon Mullen looks like a nice player, but there’s no one in the Clemson secondary that should draw fear from a top quarterback.
Potential QB controversy
Bryant wasn’t Watson, but no one could expect him to be. He did his part to help Clemson return to the Playoff. Trevor Lawrence (below) was the No. 1 recruit in the 2018 class and has all the tools to lead a team to a championship.
Does Swinney put Lawrence out there with a group of receivers long on talent and short on experience (outside of Hunter Renfrow) and an offensive line that has to improve on pass protection? Or does he go back with the experienced, tested Bryant and lean on his leadership to get the young receivers up to speed and his mobility to bail out the line when necessary but possibly sacrifice big plays in the passing game?
The bad game
Every team seems to have them. Clemson had it against Syracuse last year and Pittsburgh the year before. But in both cases they were fortunate to regain momentum and close the season strong. The Tigers might be at a spot similar to Alabama where they have earned a margin of error with the Playoff committee. But an upset loss to FSU in Tallahassee in late October might keep the Tigers out of the ACC Championship Game or a surprising home loss to a South Carolina team before Championship Week might leave a nasty taste in the committee’s mouth. Every team is going to have a bad game, the Tigers would be best served figuring out how to win theirs.