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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 3. Clemson Tigers

3. Clemson Tigers

The losses are severe, but Dabo has built a program that can withstand them

  • Location: Clemson, SC.
  • Conference: ACC (Atlantic)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Dabo Swinney (10th year)
  • Last Years Record: 14-1 (7-1 ACC
  • Bowl Result: Victory in National Championship


After coming painfully close to the school's second National Title in 2015-2016, the goal was clear for Clemson entering last season: finish the job this time. Yet, despite having QB Deshaun Watson and a ton of weapons offensively, the Tigers limped through much of their schedule, barely surviving meetings with Auburn, NC State, Louisville and more before finally losing a thriller to Pittsburgh. Instead of crippling the Tigers, the win seemed to only make them stronger and more motivated and they ended the year on fire, capping it all of with a last-second touchdown to overcome undefeated Alabama in the National Championship. It was a magical run that will forever immortalize the 2016 team but one that also led to many NFL Draft defections, from Watson to Mike Williams offensively, and even more on defense. That may slow the momentum of this program slightly, but head coach Dabo Swinney has built a powerhouse at Clemson; expecting them to give away the ACC and fall back to mediocrity would be very, very unwise.

Hunter Renfrow
Offense: Despite the fact he was unable to overcome Tajh Boyd's career passing yards, finishing off second in the school's all-time history, there shouldn't be much doubt Deshaun Watson was the greatest QB in Clemson history. Watson was a Heisman finalist twice, led Clemson to two consecutive ACC titles and two straight Playoff berths and beat archrival South Carolina every time he played them. Unfortunately, all great things must come to an end and Watson left one year of eligibility on the table to head to the NFL, where he was of course, selected by the Houston Texans. Swinney and offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott have spent all of the off-season searching for Watson's replacement, but it's unclear who that will be at this point. Junior Kelly Bryant has to be considered the frontrunner as the only quarterback who has thrown a pass in FBS football, but he doesn't have a ton of experience either. There are a lot of people around the program who believe true freshman Hunter Johnson will eventually unseat Bryant. Johnson is a four-star recruit with the size (6'4") and arm strength to really be a great quarterback. Breaking in a new signal-caller will obviously be a major adjustment for the Tigers, but Clemson is very creative offensively and they shouldn't ask the new guy to do too much this season. At running back, Clemson must replace underrated 1,000-yard rusher Wayne Gallman. It is likely we will see some type of committee approach, at least early on in the season. Sophomore Tavien Feaster averaged six yards per carry last season and should have no problem sliding into a bigger role, while junior C.J. Fuller and junior Adam Choice will also likely get chances to show what they can do. Don't expect any to completely replicate Gallman's production from a year ago, but the committee should still find a way to keep the ground game churning. At the receiver position, Clemson does lose No. 7 overall pick Mike Williams along with explosive Artavis Scott and reliable tight end Jordan Leggett. Even so, the position could still be the strength of the offense, as veteran Hunter Renfrow is joined by a number of talented weapons on the outside. Renfrow has been terrific in Clemson's last two Playoff runs but it will be interesting to see what he can do moving into a more featured role (44 receptions, 495 yards last year). Junior Ray-Ray McCloud put together a solid '16 as well and remains a very interesting player. At 5'10", McCloud obviously won't be asked to sky up and make the insanely athletic catches Williams did on a daily basis, but the junior does most of his damage on short routes where he can create himself. Coaches, fans and media alike are really excited about junior Deon Cain, who very well could be the next in a long line of elite Tiger receivers. Cain has had some off-the-field issues (suspended for 2016 National Championship for failed drug test) but has shown immense playmaking potential when on the field. He had 724 yards on just 38 receptions a season ago, while adding nine touchdowns, and remains a dynamic deep threat. With his speed and explosiveness and now becoming the No. 1 guy, it certainly seems like the junior is going to have an absolutely huge 2017. It hurts that Clemson loses the ultra-reliable Leggett at tight end, but there is some experience returning at tight end, as juniors Milan Richard and Cannon Smith vie for the starting job.  What should really help Clemson's precarious quarterback and running back situations is a fantastic offensive line, which has four starters back. Junior left tackle Mitch Hyatt is perhaps the most important returnee on the roster; the veteran has made All-ACC teams in both of his years with the Tigers and will play a huge role in protecting the new quarterback. Expect good things from senior guard Tyrone Crowder and sophomore right tackle Sean Pollard as well.

Dexter Lawrence
Defense: Usually when discussing Clemson's departures it is the defense we focus on. Coordinator Brent Venables has done a wonderful job keeping the Tigers stingy defensively despite losing draft pick after draft pick over the past few years. This year, however, the Tigers return a ton to that side of the ball, and you could very easily make the case this defense is the class of the ACC. It all starts up front, where Clemson has three legitimate studs who will be playing on Sundays in no time. Junior Christian Wilkins moves back inside to defensive tackle after spending 2016 at end, where he had 56 tackles, 9.5 of them going for a loss. Wilkins is a tremendous overall athlete and is amazing at finding ways to impact the game (he added 10 pass deflections last season). After earning 3rd-Team All-American honors in 2016, even bigger things are in store for the veteran. He'll be joined in the interior of the unit by sophomore Dexter Lawrence, who was fabulous as a true freshman. Despite his youth, Lawrence played like a full-grown veteran last season, recording seven sacks and consistently giving opposing quarterbacks issues. The amazing thing is that Lawrence is still growing and getting better, and seems to only be scratching the surface of what he can be as a defensive linemen. Off the edge, sophomore Clelin Ferrell is back, while Austin Bryant is expected to take over the gap left by departed Carlos Watkins. Ferrell was quiet for a big chunk of 2016 before exploding for three tackles for loss in this year's Fiesta Bowl win, earning him Defensive MVP honors. If he can carry that over to a full season of production, he can certainly be an All-Conference selection. Bryant doesn't have some of the astounding physical gifts some of these other guys have but the junior knows the system and can pressure the quarterback. The linebackers corps returns two starters in junior Kendall Joseph and Dorian O'Daniel, but does lose quite the important player. Middle linebacker Ben Boulware not only led Clemson in tackles, with 131, his emotion and energy really fueled this defense. His graduation hurts the Tigers significantly, but Clemson should have no trouble finding talented defenders to step up. Sophomores Tre Lamar and Chad Smith are fighting to take over the starting MLB spot, but neither has really separated themselves up to this point. Expect big things from redshirt freshman Shaq Smith, who was a very highly touted recruit before taking that redshirt last season. Smith has really impressed coaches during the spring, and should push Joseph for playing time. The secondary must also replace their leader, All-American corner Cordrea Tankersley, but returns six of their top eight and has solid experience remaining. Sophomore Trayvon Mullen and senior Ryan Carter have both seen plenty of reps at corner and are the likely starters entering the year, though junior Mark Fields and others will also feature in. Mullen has great length and athleticism, while Carter is a lockdown coverage option, even though he is a little bit undersized at 5'9". Junior Van Smith was third on the team in tackles last season, finishing off the year with 114, and he returns at free safety. With his range and fabulous feel for the game, expecting Smith to replicate, or even improve, those numbers should be a very real expectation. At strong safety, Clemson must replace All-ACC Jadar Johnson, but sophomore Tanner Muse has shown real potential in a reserve role and is ready to lock down the starting job.

Special Teams: The return of a veteran kicker like junior Greg Huegel is a huge plus for a team that should need some time to break in offensively. Huegel was All-ACC a year ago after knocking down 14 of 19 field goals. Redshirt freshman Will Spiers is the favorite to take over at punter, while Ray-Ray McCloud is a real threat in the return game.

Few teams around the nation lose the type of talent Clemson does, and yet this year's roster is as deep and star-studded as any in the past, especially on defense. There should be growing pains early on as the Tigers adjust to their new quarterback, and they find new faces in the passing game. The defense will undoubtedly carry this team at times but with the menacing front seven they have, that shouldn't be too much of a worry. Florida State and Louisville present quite the challenge but the Tigers have begun to look like a real national power, and one that can reload year in year out. With that in mind, it's hard to pick against the reigning National Champs in the ACC, no matter some of their questions. If they can answer of those questions and gel offensively, a repeat National Championship is certainly in conversation.

Player to Watch
Hunter Johnson, QB
Johnson, a four-star recruit out of Brownsburg, Indiana, impressed aplenty in the spring with his confidence and understanding of the offense. It seems almost inevitable that Clemson will give the newcomer looks, even if Kelly Bryant, the presumed starter, begins the year. The last time Clemson was replacing a record-setting QB? Watson, a true freshman, overtook veteran Cole Stoudt, and was too good to keep off the field. Can Johnson continue that trend?

Five-Year Trend
2012: 11-2 (7-1 ACC)*
2013: 11-2 (7-1 ACC)*
2014: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)*
2015: 14-1 (8-0 ACC)*
2016: 14-1 (7-1 ACC)*

*= Bowl appearance

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