Preview 2017: Clemson Tigers
Previewing and looking ahead at the Clemson Tigers season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Clemson Offense
No, really. How do you replace an all-timer of a quarterback in Deshaun Watson, and a devastatingly-slippery running back in Wayne Gallman, and NFL-caliber targets Mike Williams, Deon Cain, and TE Jordan Leggett?
The offense wasn’t always a consistently dominant force even with all of those stars – at least early on – but it managed to average over 500 yards and close to 39 points per game.
And it won a national title.
Of course it’s going to be hard to repeat the same magic without all the skill stars who made it all happen, but there’s more than enough talent in place to be explosive, dangerous, and very, very effective.
It starts up front with all-star blockers Mitch Hyatt at left tackle and Tyrone Crowder at right guard to make life easier for all the new guys.
There’s a likely three-headed monster to replace Gallman with talented backs looking to finally get their chance to shine behind the great line.
The receiving corps doesn’t have a Williams-like talent, but Ray Ray McCloud is a midrange catching machine, national title hero Hunter Renfro is back, and Deon Cain is destined for an all-star run if the quarterback play is okay.
Kelly Bryant was settled on early in the post-Deshaun process – head coach Dabo Swinney handled the situation well from the start. Unless super-recruit Hunter Johnson becomes too good to keep off the field, the Tigers have a No. 1 guy to rally around – Bryant will be able to bomb away, too.
Biggest Key To The Clemson Offense
Help out the new guy by balancing things out a bit. When you have a passer like Watson, you let him take over the offense and do whatever he wants. It helped to have the receiving talent in place, too, for a passing game that averaged 334 yards per game.
How many yards per game did the Tigers average in the pre-Deshaun era? With Tajh Boyd running things, 333 yards per game – but he had Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in his receiving corps. Under Swinney, the passing game has ruled the roost, but this year it might help if the ground game handled more of the work.
That’s not to say that Bryant can’t potentially handle the load to keep the offense chucking away, but considering the strength of the line, and the good backs in place, there’s no need to put more pressure on the new starter than needed.
What You Need To Know About The Clemson Defense
The Tiger D hasn’t exactly been overshadowed by the O over the years, but it’s been very, very good, finishing No. 1 in the nation three years ago, reloaded in time to be almost as strong on the way to the CFP in 2015, and last season it finished eighth in the nation overall while allowing just 18 points per game.
But unlike the previous few seasons, this year’s version is loaded with experience.
Seven starters are back including an NFL-caliber defensive front that should be among the best in college football. The tackle combination of Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins is phenomenal, while the pass rush from the ends aren’t going to be a problem.
Heart-and-soul linebacker Ben Boulware might be done, but the linebacking combo Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel should more than pick up the slack.
The one concern could be the secondary – at least early on – after losing First Team All-ACC performers Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson. The team’s third-leading tackler – Van Smith – is back, though, at one of the safety spots.
In all, four of the top six tacklers are back, compared to last year when five of the top six were done and two seasons ago when seven of the top nine had to be replaced.
Biggest Key To The Clemson Defense
Dominate on D, keep winning games. For everyone else outside of the elite of the elite, the idea of holding offenses to under 300 yards per game on a regular basis is ridiculous. Only seven teams were able to finish the season ahead of Clemson in total D, and it allowed just 312 per game. But when it was able to keep offenses to under 300 – yeeeeesh.
Auburn was the only team to keep a game close despite gaining fewer than 300 – coming up with 262 in the 19-13 Clemson win. In the other seven games against teams who finished under the mark, tall seven games were brutally ugly double-digit blowouts.
On the flip side, when the D allowed more than three bills of total yards, all seven were decided by a touchdown or less – including the loss to Pitt.
The last time Clemson lost when allowing fewer than 300 yards of total offense? The 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl, losing to South Florida 31-26. The 300-yard mark record since then? 29-0.
Clemson Will Be Far Better If …
The defense bails out the offense when needed. While the O will be more than fine, the D should be far stronger out of the gate. Considering Auburn, Louisville, Boston College and Virginia Tech are all up before the end of September, there will be turnovers and the defense will occasionally have to answer with takeaways.
As great as Watson was, he wasn’t afraid to take chances – he threw a ton of picks. That was a big problem in the loss to Pitt, it almost proved costly against NC State, and it didn’t help as Louisville made it interesting. Throw in the classic national title win over Bama, and those were the four games the Tigers were -2 in turnover margin.
Clemson turned the ball over 53 times over the last two seasons, but giving up 20 or more turnovers is nothing new under Swinney – the 18 giveaway season of 2014 was an aberration. The defense will have to do its part to clean up the messes.
Best Clemson Offensive Player
OT Mitch Hyatt, Jr. – How do you become a First Team All-ACC left tackle? You keep a quarterback like Watson upright. The 6-5, 295-pound Hyatt might not be massive, but he was a huge recruit for the program two years ago.
Ready right out of the box, he started as a true freshman and turned into an all-star blocker who more than held his own in the national title loss to Alabama. Last year he was even better, even after having a foot problem midway through the season. While he’s physical, mostly he’s known as a technician of a pass protector. Consider him a lock to be a three-time All-ACC performer.
2. OG Tyrone Crowder, Sr.
3. QB Kelly Bryant, Jr.
4. WR Deon Cain, Jr.
5. WR Hunter Renfrow, Jr.
Best Clemson Defensive Player
DT Dexter Lawrence, Soph. – Flip a coin and pick which All-America-caliber defensive tackle is better, Lawrence or Christian Wilkins. Either way, you’re probably right. They can both destroy a backfield, and they’re both still young.
The 6-5, 340-pound Lawrence is the bigger of the two, and last year he was more productive, finishing fourth on the team with 62 tackles with 6-5 sacks and nine tackles for loss.
2. DT Christian Wilkins, Jr.
3. LB Kendall Joseph, Jr.
4. DE Clelin Ferrell, Soph.
5. S Van Smith, Jr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
QB Kelly Bryant, Jr. Okay, Kelly, here’s your job – replace one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history and take the team back to the College Football Playoff. No big deal.
But before you buy into the idea that it’s unfair to expect any quarterback to step in and be another Deshaun Watson, remember, it was asking too much for anyone to step in and be another Tajh Boyd, too.
The 6-3, 215-pound Bryant has a wee bit of time logged in, but he’s hardly a seasoned vet. However, he’s a terrific talent who can run, is bigger than Watson, and is a smooth passer who should fill in just fine. He’d better be more than fine, though, if …
The Clemson Season Will Be A Success If …
The Tigers get back to the College Football Playoff. At this point, Clemson has proven it can reload in key spots and still be more than fine. While this isn’t going to be last year’s team, and it almost certainly won’t be as strong as the 2015 version, it’s still going to be good enough to push hard for another ACC Championship.
However, winning a third straight conference title might not necessarily be a must to make another trip to the CFP. If the Tigers go 11-1, and if they rock in those 11 wins and lose to the Atlantic team that ends up going on to win the ACC title, there’s still a shot at pulling an Ohio State of last season and getting the call. Especially if that loss is to Louisville or …
Key Game To The Clemson Season
Nov. 11 vs. Florida State – The Auburn game will be a huge national deal, the road trips to Louisville and Virginia Tech will be terrific, and away dates at NC State and South Carolina will be scary. But to have any real hope of repeating, the Tigers have to take care of almost all of those showdowns – they can afford one miss – and they’ve got to get by the loaded Seminoles.
It’s the final regular season ACC game for both teams, and most likely, the winner will get one last really, really big conference battle in December.
2016 Clemson Fun Stats
– 1st Quarter Scoring: Clemson 176 – Opponents 34
– Red Zone TDs: Clemson 51-of-68 (75%) – Opponents 22-of-39 (56%)
– Passing TDs: Clemson 45 – Opponents 13