We talk about Alabama all the time, and rightfully so. They will be the prohibitive favorite in college football, most likely, until Nick Saban is done coaching there. The recruiting classes are too good, the culture has taken shape, and the SEC schedule allows for some preparation between tough contests on occasion (and for less road games than some other teams).
But can we take a moment and really appreciate Clemson for a second?
Last 3 years: 14 wins, 14 wins, 12 wins. Last 3 years: made the CFP. Oh, but then the pesky Crimson Tide come into play again. Alabama has ended the Tigers season in 2 of the last 3 seasons in the playoff, but Clemson did get them for a National Championship thanks to DeShaun Watson’s crazy 4th quarter a couple years ago. Make no mistake, Alabama is the best, but in a sport where you just don’t see runs of elite dominance across very long periods of time (most schools need at least a year or two to reload before going after a title yet again, because I mean, kids do graduate), what Clemson’s doing is incredible.
What may make this season particularly incredible is who decided to come back and give the program yet another dominant year before turning pro: this defensive line. Clelin Farrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant. You will hear their names on Saturdays, and then later in life you will hear their names on Sundays. I think they have a chance to finish alongside the great defensive lines in the history of the game.
Clemson’s question mark: can they score enough on the other side of the ball to attain true success this year? (which by Clemson’s measure, is another playoff berth). And will coach Dabo Swinney hand the keys to the offense to a true freshman, either before the season or during it? These are questions worth exploring as we head towards the fall.
Betting markets thinks Clemson’s dominance is likely to continue this year, with win-totals sitting at 11 -110 (5D), 10.5 -155/+135 (BOL), and 11 -140/+110 (DSI). It’s important to remember if you’re new to making these bets that the postseason games do not apply to the win-totals, you need them to get there in the regular season. Lastly, the Tigers are, in any shop, the 2nd choice to win the National Title, behind…yep, Alabama.
|9/8||@ Texas A&M||-9|
|9/22||@ Georgia Tech||-15.5|
|10/6||@ Wake Forest||-17|
|10/27||@ Florida State||-6|
|11/10||@ Boston College||-13.5|
When you recruit as well as this school does, there are rarely drop-offs, but it would be dangerous to assume this offense is elite without seeing it first. Kelly Bryant performed admirably last year, playing through injury, but Clemson’s offense lacked explosiveness – their # of plays of 10+ yards dropped 28.5 percent from the year before. Bryant’s passer rating declined each month throughout the season. Enter Trevor Lawrence, true freshman and High School Player of the Year. All reports from practice are that he is indeed elite. The question is, does he start immediately, or do you give Bryant (who did take you to the CFP last year) a chance? Their receivers are unknowns as well (the team lost Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud) aside from hero Hunter Renfrow, but he can’t dominate a game like some they’ve had. It’s quite possible this passing game will struggle, and it will be entirely up to the running game, led by a superb duo of Travis Etienne and Tavian Feaster (both featuring last year, both returning). Again, this isn’t about whether this team can do well. They will do well. It’s about winning a title, and there are question marks here.
8 starters back, and you won’t find a better DC than Brent Venables. As I said in the introduction, their defensive line isn’t just the best, it may be historic. In addition to first-team and second-team All Americans, they went out and added the best D-line recruit in the country as well in Xavier Thomas. Because, you know, why not? This is a defense that sacked Auburn 11 times last year, and now all those guys are a year older. It’s just scary, man. The other levels of their defense return multiple starters and should be reloaded and continuing to perform at the top level in the conference, playing in a scheme they’re comfortable with. The offense may need them to come through big-time.
5 true road games on the schedule this year, and 3 are worth mentioning. After opening with a tune-up slaughter against Furman, the Tigers travel to Kyle Field to take on Texas A&M and new coach Jimbo Fisher. Although a coaching change may indicate a team in transition, the Aggies have 16 returning starters, including their quarterback, and this is where it will be interesting to see how Dabo handles his quarterbacks. Does he start the true freshman on the road in one of the loudest environments in the sport?
In conference, Clemson has 2 potential stumbling blocks – at Tallahassee October 27th to face the Seminoles, and a sneaky November 10th trip to Chestnut Hill to face what may be a significantly improved Boston College team (I am quite high on them this year). Note that the BC game is the 4th challenging game in 4 weeks for Clemson, with NC State, Florida State and Louisville all projected to make a bowl and win 7-8 games. There aren’t a ton of tricky spots, but that’s one.
Win/Total pick: Under 11 +110 (DSI)
All I need is one slip-up and I freeroll the rest. It’s too enticing to pass up when there’s this much uncertainty around the offense. Maybe Trevor Lawrence is amazing, but then he’s at Kyle Field in Week 2 with no explosive receivers he can trust. Maybe Kelly Bryant can get it done, but I’ve seen no indications he has a truly elite skill set. I’ll take the under here.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
ACC – Atlantic
2016 record: 14-1 SU & 7-6 ATS
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney – Head Coaching Experience: 10 years (10th with Clemson)
Season Over/Under Win Total: 9.5 (+100/-120) at 5Dimes Sportsbook
Odds to win 2017 College Football Championship game: 20/1 (9th best odds)
Returning Starters: 12 (Offense: 5 Defense: 7)
Rivals 2017 Recruiting ranking: #22 (total recruits: 14, 5-star: 3)
Clemson’s biggest hurdle on offense this year will obviously be replacing the 2016 National Championship winning, 2-time Heisman finalist, and Clemson’s second most prolific passer in school history, Deshaun Watson. The 6’3” 215 lb Junior dual threat, Kelly Bryant, appears to be first in line to leave where Watson left off, but the race is still open at this point in the preseason. True Freshman 5-star reruit Hunter Johnson is expected to make it a competition, displaying throwing accuracy above what Kelly Bryant has been able to thus far, but with less mobility and experience. The quarterback position is still up for grabs in what will be some very big shoes to fill in replacing Watson.
The Tigers also lost another stud on the offensive side of the ball with the departure of 4th round NFL Draft selection, Wayne Gallman, to the NY Giants. Gallman set the school rushing record in 2015 with 1527 rushing yards, and went for over 1,000 once again in 2016 with 1133 behind a weaker offensive line. 5’ 11’’ 210 lb. So. Tavien Feaster, who only saw action in blowouts last year as a true freshman (6 ypc), has speed and elusiveness – a skill set often compared to that of CJ Spiller, is expected to be the new feature back this year. With the loss of Watson’s running ability and passing prowess, Clemson should be expected to run a more balanced offense this year with Feaster playing a major role.
Clemson’s WR core will not be without major losses as well, with 2nd Team All-American Mike Williams going to the NFL, 3rd Team AA TE Jordan Leggett, and Artavis Scott leaving for the NFL as well. They will return Jr. Deon Cain who was very close behind Leggett last year in terms of yardage produced (736 to 724yds), Jr. Hunter Renfrow, who caught 44 balls last year, (one of which won Clemson the National Championship), and Jr Ray-Ray McCloud who caught 49 balls. With 11 highly recruited prospects on this unit, there shouldn’t be much of a drop off here, but losing 3 of their top 4 producers from last year won’t make the transition easy.
One unit that should see an uptick for Clemson this year is their offensive line. A unit that only rushed for 170 ypg last year, will only lose one lineman who started the entire year in 1st team ACC C Jay Guillermo. They also lose RT Jake Fruhmorgen who missed the last 7 games, but started the first 8. Overall, though the line will return 83 starts, including 2 All-ACC lineman in LT Mitch Hyatt and RG Tyrone Crowder. With a senior, 3 juniors, and sophomore working the trenches, the Clemson offensive line should certainly see some improvement this year.
For Brett Venables’ unit these last couple of years, their defensive firepower has resided up front, and this year should be no exception. Though they lose 1st team All-american Carlos Watkins to the NFL, they return 2016 ACC Rookie of the year So. DT Dexter Lawrence (78 tackles), and Jr. DT Christian Wilkins who also won ACC Rookie of the year in 2015 and was a 3rd team All-American last year. With 11 highly recruited defensive lineman on the roster, this should continue to be one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
The Tigers linebacking unit will remain mostly in-tact for 2017, returning 5 of 6 players who saw game action, but losing their leading tackler and 2nd Team All-American Ben Boulware. Their second leading tackler, Kendall Joseph (124 tackles) will return however, along with true sophomore Tre Lamar, manning what will be a more experienced group of linebackers this year for Clemson’s defense.
Having to replace 3 starters in 2016: a 1st Team ACC Cornerback, a 2nd Team ACC Safety, and a second round draft pick at Safety, Clemson’s secondary actually showed improvement last year, allowing only 182 yards passing per game. This they will have to replace 3rd team All-American Safety Cordrea Tankersley, and 1st team ACC S Jadar Johnson. Though they will return 6 or their 8 defensive backs, they will be a young secondary, starting 3 sophomores and one junior in FS Van Smith.
Overall, Clemson should once again be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC, returning 12 starters from a National Championship winning team, and coached once again by one of the best staffs in the country. Odds-makers currently have the Tigers season win total set at 9 and their chances of repeating a National Championship victory as the 9th best of any team, in anticipation of what could be another run at a College Football Playoff appearance. Though the Tigers will play 2 of their toughest tests in the ACC on the road at Louisville and Virginia Tech, they get Florida State at home, in what could be a big showdown on Nov. 11. Their defense should certainly be very strong once again with Venables back as Defensive Coordinator and 7 starters returning. A lot of uncertainty still remains at the quarterback position, however, and whether it be Kelly Bryant or Hunter Johnson, their success will mostly depend on their transition out of the Deshaun Watson era.
Free pick: Clemson Under