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Clemson is in a retooling 2017, but wow, is the upside still sky-high

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Why the defending champs could be anywhere from top-20 to top-four, depending on the new QB.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

On the first title run, Clemson sneaked up on everybody. The Tigers had gone just 14-9 in Danny Ford’s first two seasons, and while there was some optimism — they had their most experienced team in years, and Clemson fans are always optimistic about the coming year — they had only finished ranked twice in two decades, and they were unranked to begin the year.

It wasn’t until they shut down Herschel Walker and Georgia in mid-September that anyone started paying attention.

1981 played out with two primary plot lines: heavyweights all beating each other up — Penn State, Pitt, Nebraska, etc. — and Clemson flying under the radar. The Tigers eked by Tulane, 13-5, and Georgia, 13-3. They survived No. 8 North Carolina, 10-8. They allowed under nine points per game, and a 22-15 win over Nebraska gave them a surprising national title.

There was no flying under the radar 35 years later. To deliver the school’s second title, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers had to labor under an intense spotlight.

They began No. 2, nearly lost to Troy, nearly lost to Louisville, really nearly lost to NC State, and nearly lost to Florida State before actually losing to Pitt at home in mid-November. The offense looked hungover, and the defense suffered random glitches. All the fun of 2015’s unexpected run to the title game got squashed under expectation.

The loss to Pitt, however, seemed to relax Swinney’s team. Clemson finished by crushing Wake Forest and South Carolina and easing to a 35-14 lead over Virginia Tech in the ACC title game before running out of gas, but holding on. And like a title team is supposed to do, the Tigers saved their best performances for the end.

They crushed Ohio State, 31-0, in the Fiesta Bowl, then overcame a double-digit deficit to beat Alabama, 35-31, in a classic.

Swinney is not yet 50 years old, but his coaching career already has quite a few twists.

  • Failed assistant. He was Mike DuBose’s receivers coach at Alabama in the late-1990s but off the sideline after DuBose was fired in 2000.
  • Real estate salesman. He sat out the 2001-02 seasons, working for AIG.
  • Clemson recruiter. When Clemson recruiting coordinator Rick Stockstill was named Middle Tennessee head coach, Tommy Bowden lured Swinney back into coaching, and Swinney became known as one of the nation’s better recruiters.
  • Sacrificial interim. When Bowden was fired midway through 2008, Swinney was named interim and went 3-3.
  • Failing head coach. Clemson stunned many by giving him the full-time job, and he went 15-12 in 2009-10. Even when he broke through with a 2011 ACC title, the season ended with a 70-33 Orange Bowl humiliation at the hands of West Virginia.
  • Champ. He brought in coordinator Chad Morris to modernize his offense, then Brent Venables to transform the defense. His Tigers went 32-7 with three top-15 finishes from 2012-14, then 28-2 in 2015-16. With star quarterback Deshaun Watson, he became only the third coach not named Nick Saban or Urban Meyer to win a national title since 2008.

Here’s a list of active college head coaches with a national title: Saban, Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Swinney. And while those first three coaches lead what are probably the top three teams in the preseason polls, expectations have been dialed back a bit for Swinney’s defending champs.

That’s what happens when you lose maybe your best player in nearly every unit: quarterback (Deshaun Watson), running back (Wayne Gallman), receiver (Mike Williams), tight end (Jordan Leggett), offensive line (center Jay Guillermo), defensive tackle (Carlos Watkins), linebacker (Ben Boulware), safety (Jadar Johnson), and cornerback (Cordrea Tankersley).

Of course, when you recruit like Swinney, you won’t be expected to fall too far. Per the 247Sports Composite, the Tigers boast two four- or five-star quarterbacks, three such running backs, eight receivers, five offensive linemen, nine defensive linemen, six linebackers, and six defensive backs. There are also plenty of known quantities, from receiver Deon Cain, to all-conference offensive linemen Mitch Hyatt and Tyrone Crowder, to linebackers Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel, to safety Van Smith, to, like, 17 different defensive linemen.

Honestly, the situation is pretty much perfect. The slate has been wiped clean from an expectations standpoint, but the Tigers are still talented as hell and projected sixth in S&P+. The schedule is all sorts of dicey — home games against Auburn and Florida State, road trips to Louisville, Virginia Tech, NC State, and South Carolina — but that might serve to keep expectations loose. The Tigers can relax, find a quarterback, and play really good football.

You know, like they did in 1981.


2016 in review

2016 Clemson statistical profile.

Clemson’s 2016 really was a labor. Like Florida State’s 2014 team, the Tigers returned most of their stars from their run to the title game, but in taking everybody’s attempted knockout blow, they ended up playing in a ton of close games — eight decided by one possession, in fact.

Part of the problem was simply the schedule. Even before battling Ohio State and Alabama in the CFP, the Tigers had faced six teams in the S&P+ top 25 and 11 bowl teams. That will wear on you. Some opponents (Auburn, NC State) were better than we thought, which also impacted perceptions.

Despite the close games, though, Clemson was still mostly awesome. And down the stretch, when the Tigers found their happy place, they were more than awesome.

  • First 4 games (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 91% (65% offense, 92% defense) | Avg. score: Clemson 34, Opp 11 | Avg. yards per play: Clemson 5.6, Opp 3.4 (plus-2.2)
  • Next 6 games (5-1): Avg. percentile performance: 91% (80% offense, 66% defense) | Avg. score: Clemson 43, Opp 23 | Avg. yards per play: Clemson 6.8, Opp 5.4 (plus-1.4)
  • Last 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 96% (93% offense, 76% defense) | Avg. score: Clemson 40, Opp 17 | Avg. yards per play: Clemson 6.0, Opp 4.6 (plus-1.4)

Clemson had a bit of a turnovers problem early on — two against Auburn, three against Troy, five against Louisville, four against NC State, three against Pitt — but the Tigers were otherwise as good as they were supposed to be. And when they cut their average from 2.1 turnovers per game through 10 to 1.4 per game over the final five, things more or less fell into place.


Offense

Clemson offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

One of the most annoying parts of the offseason occurs when the pro scouts get involved. At that point, we get to hear all the reasons why Great College Player A is, well actually, not good at all. That was the case for Deshaun Watson, one of the greatest college quarterbacks in recent memory, when he went through the NFL draft car wash.

Whatever. Watson was everything Clemson fans could have hoped he’d become when the five-star chose Swinney’s Tigers over home-state Georgia and the rest of the universe back in 2014.

In games in which Watson threw at least 10 passes, Clemson went 31-3. The first of those three losses (at Florida State in early-2014) might have had a different result had he played the entire game. And in 2016, with the Tigers playing a relentless schedule with eight S&P+ top-25 opponents, they weren’t able to overwhelm opponents with big plays. So Watson just dinked and dunked them to death and converted seemingly every third-and-four with his legs.

The result: a devastatingly efficient attack.

Clemson offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Clemson had the most efficient offense in the country, and against that ridiculous schedule, Watson finished with a top-20 passer rating. To say he will be missed is an understatement.

In the battle to replace Watson, there is some symmetry. In 2014, career backup Cole Stoudt began the season on the first string before he was eventually overtaken by Watson, a blue-chip freshman. In 2017, you’ve got junior and career backup Kelly Bryant attempting to hold off, among others, blue-chip true freshman Hunter Johnson. And for good measure, 2018 blue-chipper Trevor Lawrence is also committed, just in case the plot doesn’t play out right the first time around.

Other options include sophomore Tucker Israel and redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper, but it appears it’s Bryant’s job to lose out of the gates.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson
Tavien Feaster
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We know next to nothing about Bryant’s passing ability, but the dude can run. And it’s not hard to see him combining with an experienced line — six returnees (including Hyatt and Crowder) have combined for 83 career starts and have an average size of 6’4, 311 pounds — and a fun stable of running backs to create a dynamic, exciting run game.

Juniors C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice and sophomore Tavien Feaster combined for 129 carries backing up Gallman, and four-star freshman Travis Etienne passes the eyeball test as well. Of those, Feaster is easily the most intriguing to me in 2017. He was the best recruit of the bunch, and he averaged 6 yards per carry to Fuller’s 4.5 and Choice’s 3.5.

Bryant and Feaster breaking explosive runs behind a big, seasoned line, with Fuller and Choice grinding between the tackles? That’ll be enough to take down a majority of opponents.

But some will force the Tigers to pass. It’s unclear how well that will go. Williams, Leggett, Artavis Scott, and Wayne Gallman combined for a massive 240 catches, 2,863 yards, and 23 touchdowns last year.

Of course, returning junior wideouts Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and Ray-Ray McCloud combined for 131 catches and 1,691 yards themselves; when you play 15 games and spread the ball around a lot, plenty of targets rack up reps. None of the returning targets are taller than 6’1, so if a bigger, younger, four-star wideout like sophomore Diondre Overton or freshman Tee Higgins has a nice fall camp, there might be a role available.

The question is obvious: can Bryant get these guys the ball? And if he can’t, does the run game suffer with Johnson or someone else behind center instead? Clemson’s offense will almost certainly regress, but the ceiling’s still pretty high and the range of potential outcomes broad.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Deon Cain
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Clemson defensive radar

Clemson’s run began the moment Swinney hired Venables. After a first-year settling-in, Venables’ defense improved from 62nd in Def. S&P+ in 2012 to 41st in 2013, then to first, sixth, and sixth the last three seasons. They lost a ton of stars from an awesome 2014 defense and still dominated; they did the same last year.

This year they don’t lose that many pieces. That should terrify every opponent. I mentioned four names in the intro — Watkins, Boulware, Johnson, Tankersley — and they are almost literally all Venables has to replace. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to recent seasons.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson
Clelin Ferrell (99), Dorian O’Daniel (6), and Dexter Lawrence (90)
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As always, it starts up front. Tackle Dexter Lawrence and end Clelin Ferrell combined for 21.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks as freshmen, while tackle Christian Wilkins recorded 13 TFLs and a nation’s-best (for a lineman) 10 pass breakups. And the absence of Watkins and backup Scott Pagano just means more potential playing time for junior Albert Huggins or redshirt freshman Nyles PInckney.

The Tigers rounded into form in run defense as the season progressed. For the season, they finished just 25th in Rushing S&P+, but Ohio State managed just a 43 percent rushing success rate in the semifinals, and Alabama had only 38 percent. Both teams produced well below their season averages.

Clemson controlled the line against Alabama and Ohio State — a.k.a. probably the two top teams in 2017’s preseason polls — and will almost certainly do so against every team they face this fall. It’s nice having that in your back pocket, considering what Clemson has at linebacker, ready to clean up messes: Kendall Joseph (12.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks), Dorian O’Daniel (10 TFLs, 2.5 sacks), and four-star sophomores (Tre Lamar, Chad Smith) and freshmen (Shaq Smith, Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph) just waiting their turn.

Clemson v Georgia Tech
Van Smith
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Even with all of these pieces up front, pass defense was a particular strength for Clemson. Granted, a top-10 pass rush had something to do with that, but Johnson, Tankersley, Van Smith, Ryan Carter, and company came up huge, holding opponents to a 52 percent completion rate, 20 interceptions, and a 100.2 passer rating.

Smith and Carter are back, at least. So are corners Marcus Edmond, Mark Fields, and Trayvon Mullen and safeties Tanner Muse, Denzel Johnson, and K’Von Wallace. Virtually all of them produced from backup roles when asked.

The offense will absolutely regress, but there’s nothing saying the defense has to. In fact, with less turnover than usual, you could make a case for the Tigers returning to the Def. S&P+ top five.


Special Teams

Clemson was a little bit lucky that a mediocre special teams unit wasn’t more costly than it could have been. The Tigers ranked just 85th in Special Teams S&P+, losing about 0.6 points per game in this department. There was only one true weakness (Andy Teasdall’s punts averaged just 38 yards and ranked 98th in punt efficiency), but there were no strengths either.

In this regard, losing Teasdall and return man Artavis Scott won’t hurt much. It’s just not guaranteed to help either.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Kent State 123 40.4 99%
9-Sep Auburn 9 4.8 61%
16-Sep at Louisville 14 1.7 54%
23-Sep Boston College 76 27.3 94%
30-Sep at Virginia Tech 25 8.8 69%
7-Oct Wake Forest 64 22.4 90%
13-Oct at Syracuse 60 16.8 83%
28-Oct Georgia Tech 31 16.2 82%
4-Nov at N.C. State 27 10.3 72%
11-Nov Florida State 3 -0.9 48%
18-Nov The Citadel NR 39.4 99%
25-Nov at South Carolina 36 13.0 77%
Projected S&P+ Rk 6
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 28 / 5
Projected wins 9.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 18.6 (4)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 13 / 12
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 4.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 47% (32%, 62%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 13.0 (0.0)

I hate making a statement this broad, but ... it all depends on the QB, doesn’t it?

Clemson should generate a reasonably efficient run game, and Bryant and Feaster have massive potential explosiveness. The receiving corps loses a lot but returns a lot. Both lines have loads of experience and upside, and the linebacking corps is a strength. The secondary should still be good. Swinney has put together top-10 talent and should still have a top-10 team.

That’s not quite right, though. With solid QB play, Clemson should be top-five. Without it, maybe top-15 or 20. Any setback will be temporary, but ... it all depends on the QB.

S&P+ sees a team easily capable of a top-five performance. The Tigers are projected sixth, with a win probability of at least 48 percent in every game and at least 77 percent in seven.

The worst-case scenario is a reasonably successful regrouping year; the best-case is, well, another title. But if there’s a title run in store, it will require the Tigers to have that QB situation figured out immediately — CU plays three projected top-25 teams before October 1: Auburn at home and Louisville and Virginia Tech on the road.

If Clemson is 5-0 heading into October, look out, but Tiger fans probably won’t be too stressed out if that’s not the case.

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