Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 12 Clemson.
Clemson is coming off a 12-2 season that resulted in the Tigers making their third trip to the playoff, though they lost the opening game to Alabama, dropping the Sugar Bowl 24-6. It was yet another successful year under head coach Dabo Swinney, who has become arguably the best coach in the nation not working in Tuscaloosa.
Now, this is not a Dabo-friendly blog. In 2016, the man wiped away serious allegations of his players calling South Carolina players the N-word despite coming from a campus where KKK flyers were distributed just a month before. He doesn’t think the athletes that provide the labor that fuels his $5 million annual salary should be paid. He doesn’t think Colin Kaepernick did the right thing and said race relations are fine because there are black CEOs now. He sucks! He sucks so, so much! But goddamn, can this man coach a college football team.
Entering his 11th season, Swinney is 101-30 with two national title appearances and one championship trophy, all at a program whose only prior experience at this level of college football were some good Danny Ford years at the start of the ‘90s. Swinney is just 48 years old, which means that I’ll probably still have to listen to his shitty pressers 30 years from now, but also that he’s poised to have one of the great coaching careers in the history of the game. This is possible because there are few in the nation who hire or recruit quite as precisely and effectively as Swinney does at Clemson. What those efforts yield you, in the lucky years where everything clicks, are top-flight future NFL quarterbacks and absolute bullies on the defensive line.
Here’s a sentence that is amazing for defensive coordinator Brent Venables and and terrifying for, well, everyone else: Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant are all coming back. That faint trickling sound you just heard was every ACC Atlantic Division offensive coordinator pissing his pants.
Their return alone means that Clemson’s defensive line will be the best line in college football by a gap so wide you could probably fit one or two NFL teams in there. This bunch of Tigers held opposing offenses to 3.1 yards per rush last year, and more importantly, they kept running backs out of the end zone better than anyone in the nation—offenses averaged a rushing touchdown once every three games against the Tigers.
That is insane, considering Alabama’s defense, the only group even close to Clemson in terms of production, was allowing twice as many rushing scores. It didn’t quite pan out that way in the Sugar Bowl, but that happens when your offense drops a turd for four straight quarters. Wilkins and Ferrell are almost certainly going to be first-round picks, but should any injuries pop up this year, the Tigers will be set thanks to the fact that they have nothing but four- and five-star recruits the coaching staff just signed in preparation for losing the trio.
Expert butt-poker Ben Boulware is off to the NFL, meaning the defense will need to replace its leader in the middle of the field. Senior Kendall Joseph, like the big boys in front of him, decided to put off the NFL one more year to return to his starting role at at weak-side linebacker. Behind him, redshirt sophomore linebacker Shaq Smith is also back after taking a big leap in 2018. After a year confined to the bench as a reserve, he got on the field some last year, playing 73 snaps—this year, Clemson will expect him to step up.
The biggest question mark on defense comes in the secondary. The Tigers lost senior corners Ryan Carte and Marcus Edmonds as well as safety Van Smith. They return corners Mark Fields and Trayvon Mullen, both of whom saw significant minutes in 2017, as well as A.J. Terrell, Tanner Muse, and Isaiah Simmons at safety. Even still, Venables has been very clear he’s not comfortable with their depth in the defensive backfield, saying in March, “I don’t feel great about our depth there at all.”
Last season was Clemson’s first without the legendary DeShaun Watson leading the offense under center. In his place, backup Kelly Bryant stepped up and was okay, at best. Through the air, the junior averaged just 200 yards and less than one touchdown per game (0.93 per game, to be specific.) His running game was fine, producing 11 touchdowns, but the drop-off in the passing game was a tad too drastic. Naturally, the offense lagged and regressed. In the two years with Watson as a starter, Clemson finished among the top-20 scoring offenses and the passing game was good for 290 yards and and 2.5 scores per game.
After Bryant’s lackluster year (even when not compared to Watson, 13 scoring throws in 14 games is bad), Clemson brought in five-star recruit Trevor Lawrence, who has done nothing but impress coaches and teammates all spring and summer. Swinney has said he plans on using a two-quarterback rotation if need be, which pretty much tells you all you need to know—Lawrence’s time is now and Swinney isn’t going to wait on Bryant to become the guy they need to win that second title. If Bryant isn’t up to snuff by the third week, expect the freshman to take the reins.
Whoever gets the nod will have to make due with an inexperienced but immensely talented receiving corps. Gone are Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain and their 1,237 yards from 2017. (With Watson under center in 2016, they went for 1,196 and 11 scores despite being in the bottom half of the rotation.) Hunter Renfrow, the hero of the 2016 Clemson title game, will be joined by Tee Higgins as players returning that saw substantial time last year. In terms of newcomers, freshman Justyn Ross has made clear he’s ready to play now, while Trevion Thompson and sophomore Amari Rodgers both appear to be ready to join the regular rotation.
Likewise, the running game will be a group effort unless someone steps up as a full-on star. As of now, Travis Etienne appears to be the leader of the bunch, having led the Tigers in yards and yards per rush in 2017 thanks to his penchant for busting out back-breaking big runs. He’ll be joined by Tavien Feaster, who was hot on his heels last season, rushing for just 97 total fewer yards by the season’s end. Those two should be more than enough for the offense, but if anything happens, Clemson has a very full stable. Adam Choice and Lyn-J Dixon are both more than capable of stepping in and providing relief. Like basically every part of this team, this position is filled with people that have broken out already or are just waiting for their turn.
Do you know how good Clemson’s defensive line is? They have two guys that you legitimately should know at the same position—above: Christian Wilkins; below: Clelin Ferrell.
As far as defensive ends go, these guys are as good as they make them. In just two seasons—28 games—Ferrell has 15.5 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss to his name; on the other side of the line, Wilkins has gone for 10.5 sacks and 26.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. They are both going to be picked within the top-20 come the 2019 NFL Draft and almost certainly would have been this past year. The announcement of their decision to return in January was shocking and secured Clemson’s position alongside Alabama as the favorite team to return to the playoff.
Shocking, I know, but the Clemson coaching Twitter accounts are so bland this is lame-ass acrostic is the most entertaining thing I found.
Yes, with this defensive line alone, Clemson has what it needs to make the playoff. The Tigers have to go to Texas A&M and Florida State this year, but otherwise, their schedule has everything needed for a perfect run through the regular season. Anything short of a national title berth, not just a playoff appearance, will be seen as a disappointment by both the fans and the seniors that came back for one more season.
Also, funny note: In their season-opener against Furman, Clemson will play a quarterback that is dual-enrolled in a program split between the two schools, meaning the Tigers will actually be facing one of their own to start the 2018 season.
Sept. 1: Furman
Sept. 8: @ Texas A&M
Sept. 15: Georgia Southern
Sept. 22: @ Georgia Tech
Sept. 29: Syracuse
Oct. 6: @ Wake Forst
Oct. 20: N.C. State
Oct. 27: @ Florida State
Nov. 3: Louisville
Nov. 10: @ Boston College
Nov. 17: Duke
Nov. 24: South Carolina