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College Football Preview 2018: 1. Clemson Tigers

1. Clemson Tigers

They've become one of the country's most consistent and stable programs, and are loaded from top-to-bottom

Tavien Feaster
Offense: The biggest storyline for Clemson's offense this off-season was at the sport's most critical position: quarterback. Head coach Dabo Swinney has an incumbent starter in senior Kelly Bryant, but a lot of people think true freshman Trevor Lawrence could overtake him. Bryant is a superb runner and led this team to a 12-2 mark a season ago, but he leaves a little bit too be desired in the downfield passing game. Meanwhile, Lawrence comes in with a massive amount of hype and backed it up with a strong showing in the spring game. His big arm could really open things up for this offense, which has the weapons to be explosive. I think the QB situation will figure itself out much the way it did in 2014. That year Cole Stoudt returned as the more experienced but less risky choice, and started the year before freshman Deshaun Watson came on and was too goo to keep off the field. Either way, there is a ton of upside at the position, and the passing game could take a step forward.

The Tigers have two quality running backs in sophomore Travis Etienne and junior Tavien Feaster. Feaster began last year as the feature back, but Etienne broke onto the scene with his game-changing speed. We should still see Feaster in short yardage situations, but Etienne is the one likely to see a larger workload. He has the playmaking ability to score every time he touches the ball, and in a variety of ways. Etienne averaged 7.2 yards per carry and recorded 13 touchdowns in 2017.

Swinney, a former wide receiver himself, has developed and recruited the wide receiver position as well as anybody in the country. There is a long list of former Tiger receivers playing on Sundays, and this group is going to have a very strong 2018. Senior Hunter Renfrow is the most experienced target returning to this lineup, as the former walk-on has been crucial in Clemson's postseason success over the last few years. After catching 60 passes for 602 yards last year, Renfrow will look to become more of an imposing red zone threat, after just 3 scores a year ago. Sophomore Tee Higgins looks like the most likely breakout candidate of this group, and he could have a monster year. Higgins is a superb athlete that can wreak havoc when he gets any type of space. He averaged 20.3 yards per reception last year and could be a perfect fit with Lawrence's huge arm. Fellow sophomore Amari Rodgers and junior Diondre Overton are other receivers to watch who both had some moments a season ago. At tight end, senior Milan Richard isn't a super prolific receiver but has pretty soft hands and can move the chains. He could be in store for a much more productive '18 after catching 18 passes last year. 

The most underrated aspect of Clemson's success last year was their offensive line, and it should be well-stocked once more heading into a new season. Clemson did lose both starting guards, but left tackle Mitch Hyatt should be the steadying force of the unit. The veteran has been a starter since his freshman year and has long been an NFL prospect. He will play a crucial role in protecting whoever is back there at quarterback. Junior Sean Pollard is also back, and can play a multitude of positions for this team.

Even with a quarterback question hanging over their heads, the Tigers' offense looks awfully capable entering 2018. At the very least, Bryant has proven he can facilitate the ball to Clemson's playmakers and find ways to win games. If Lawrence is even better and the offense can really pass the ball, Clemson becomes pretty terrifying.

Defense: Once an afterthought compared to their explosive and high-scoring offense, defense has become the strength of this Clemson program. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables remains one of the best there is, and he has possibly his most talented defense ever to work with.

You could seriously make the case this is going to be the best defensive line in college football history, especially if everyone stays healthy. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant all would have been high NFL Draft selections but the trio decided to stay, showing their commitment to each other and the University. Wilkins, a feisty run stopping nose tackle, will be joined by junior Dexter Lawrence, who would have been a high NFL Draft selection too if he was eligible. They are two of the most athletic pass rushing tackles in the entire country, and likely All-Americans. Ferrell and Bryant create plenty of chaos off the edge as well. Ferrell led the team in sacks in 2017 with 9.5, and seems to only be getting better. The starters on the line all have a legitimate claim for All-ACC honors and likely more, and they are going to absolutely destroy some offensive lines this year. Just for good measure, Swinney and his staff recruited on the D-Line incredibly well this past recruiting cycle, and Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry could make an immediate impact. The two five-star ends could start nearly anywhere in the country but because this group is so good, they'll have to battle for every snap. Veterans like sophomore Nyles Pinckney and senior Albert Huggins add even more depth to this stacked defensive front.

If anybody does manage to break through Clemson's line, the linebackers are going to clean them up. Veterans Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar aren't going to get the attention the stars on the defensive line will get, but they will be crucial to this defense. Joseph led the team in tackles a season ago and remains a top-notch defender. He could be used more in coverage this year after showing significant upside there last season. Lamar is an important helper in run support who had four sacks in 2017 and should get after the opposing QB early and often this season. The OLB spot opposite of Joseph is a question mark, as the Tigers lose Dorian O'Daniel. However, sophomores Isaiah Simmons and Shaq Smith look ready to step up and play important snaps. 

Despite suffering through a rash of injuries in 2017, the Tigers' pass defense allowed just 162 yards per game, fourth nationally. Juniors Trayvon Mullen and Tanner Muse are the returning starters to the group, with Mullen likely the No. 1 cornerback and Muse starting at strong safety. Mullen is their top playmaker in the back-end, picking off three passes last year. He still has to work on consistency, but all the tools are there. Senior Mark Fields is also returning at corner, but there is little depth behind him and Mullen, which could be concerning down the line. It wouldn't be surprising to see some newcomers step up right away, including Atlanta product Kyler McMichael at corner and the versatile Mario Goodrich, who can play nearly anywhere in the secondary. The question of depth is also a relative concern at safety, and it will be interesting to see how Venables and the rest of this staff overcome that.

The starpower on this defense is absolutely staggering, and it is hard to imagine it not being one of the best in the entire country this year. There are some concerns to be wary about with that secondary, but having this dominant of a pass rush can fix other deficiencies on a defense. Venables is going to have a very fun time utilizing all the playmakers he has on this side of the ball.

Special Teams: After missing 2017 with a torn ACL, kicker Greg Huegel is back in action, a big win for the Tigers. Huegel combined for 41 made field goals his first two seasons with the team, in 2015 and '16. Punter is in good hands with the return of steady sophomore Will Spiers, and the return game has serious potential, with Travis Etienne still searching for his first return score.

Clemson has experienced an impressive wave of success the past few seasons, making three straight Playoff appearances and rolling to three straight ACC Titles. Those good times don't seem to be stopping anytime soon, and definitely not in 2018. Both sides of the ball have playmakers and talent everywhere, and he offense could even take a step forward this season if Lawrence is as good as advertised. A crushing 24-6 loss in this past Sugar Bowl left this team motivated and hungry, which has to keep this team focused all year long. The past two seasons, the Tigers have lost to Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two teams they are clearly superior too in talent. If they can avoid that this season and roll into the Playoff undefeated, it is Clemson's to take. They are my pick to be hoisting the Championship Trophy at Levi's Stadium come January. 

Team Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (8-0 ACC, Win ACC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Travis Etienne
Defensive MVP: DE Clelin Ferrell
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Tee Higgins

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