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Clemson made the Playoff in a reset year. The reset’s over.

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Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are the clear class of the ACC, again.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Press Conference
Dabo Swinney
The Greenville News-USA TODAY NETWORK

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Despite the tradition, Howard’s Rock, the Death Valley moniker, heavy attendance, a brilliant recruiting base (two and a half hours from both Atlanta and Charlotte), and that lovely shade of orange, Clemson was long either the prototype underachiever or the prototype for delusions of grandeur.

Large crowds and ambition had only bought the program one top-five finish — 1981’s unexpected national title run — when Dabo Swinney took over midway through the 2008 season.

Let’s just say the progression to the mean has been impressive, and history has evened itself out quickly. The Tigers now have four top-five finishes to their name after three consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff — a trip to the final in 2015, a national title in 2016, and a trip to the semis in 2017.

Along with Nick Saban’s Alabama and Urban Meyer’s Ohio State, Swinney’s Clemson has become one of the three best-managed programs in the country.

  • The Tigers lost an awesome assistant (former offensive coordinator Chad Morris is now an SEC head coach) and awesome players (QB Tajh Boyd, defensive linemen Da’Quan Bowers and Vic Beasley, etc.) and then made their run.
  • They lost their best QB ever (Deshaun Watson) and basically the top player from every other unit as well, then still won the ACC and made the CFP last fall.
  • They lose such a small number to attrition that Swinney has signed more than 21 prospects just once in his last five recruiting classes. (They’ve averaged 19.8 signees per year, compared to Alabama’s 25 and Ohio State’s 24.6.)

2017 certainly wasn’t bad for a retooling year, huh? Clemson carried itself like a wily champ, laboring through large portions of games but then making the the exact right plays to win comfortably. They weren’t nearly as impressive offensively, falling from second to 45th in Off. S&P+, but only three games weren’t victories of more than seven points.

They slipped up in an ill-fated Friday night trip to Syracuse, escaped NC State again, and lost the plot in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl/CFP semifinal against Alabama. So 2017 was only Clemson’s fourth-best season ever. The horror.

The retooling is over. Clemson returns quarterback (and leading rusher) Kelly Bryant and brought in an all-world freshman (Trevor Lawrence) to nip at his heels. The Tigers get their top three running backs back, along with seven of nine wide receivers, their starting tight end, All-American left tackle Mitch Hyatt, and all-conference center Justin Falcinelli.

Oh yeah, and a defense that ranked second in Def. S&P+ returns eight starters and nearly every lineman. Counting the second string, Clemson might have two of the country’s 10 best defensive lines.

The offense only has to improve so much.

Per S&P+, Clemson is a projected double-digit favorite in every game this season. Only two games (the trips to Texas A&M and Florida State) are projected within 15 points. The Tigers are only projected third overall in S&P+ because Ohio State and Alabama are similarly loaded and proven, but the odds of a fourth-straight top-five finish are high, and finishing outside of the top two would end up feeling a little disappointing.

The offense will be the deciding factor. It rounded into form from an efficiency standpoint as the season progressed, but a total lack of big plays and an average performance on passing downs gave drives opportunities to stall out. They failed to average more than 5.7 yards per play (roughly the national average) in any of their last 10 games against FBS competition, and their limitations were magnified for the world to see against Alabama.

Without any offensive improvement, this team can win another 10 or 11 games. But I’m thinking expectations are a little higher than that.

Offense

Kelly Bryant became a less effective runner as he took more and more hits. Still, he’s a good runner, and he shares a backfield with a bunch of former four-star recruits: junior Tavien Feaster, sophomore Travis Etienne, senior Adam Choice, and incoming freshman Lyn-J Dixon.

There really wasn’t an excuse, then, for how bad Clemson was on first downs last year. The Tigers averaged just 5.2 yards per play on those downs, 109th in the country and 10th in the ACC. They got away with it because they were excellent at making up ground on second down and then converting third-and-manageables (and because the otherworldly defense made sure that three-and-outs weren’t fatal).

Still, if you fall behind the chains a lot and don’t show the big-play capability to make up ground, it’ll catch up to you. Bryant averaged just 10.7 yards per completion, and Clemson ranked just 119th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays).

Part of the reason for this lack of big plays was the lack of a need for them. When you can create and convert third-and-manageables, and when your defense can carry so much weight, you can keep things conservative, and co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott did.

Still, with so many athletic specimens, you’d love to see a few more of those conservative plays busting large gains.

We’ll see if that changes now that Etienne is no longer a freshman. The speedster from Louisiana went from boom-or-bust in the first half of his first season to a more efficient back. He and Feaster ended up tied for the most carries in a RB-by-committee backfield, but he gained 97 more yards and scored six more touchdowns. And Feaster wasn’t bad!

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game
Travis Etienne (9) and Kelly Bryant (2)
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Etienne’s got elite potential from both an efficiency and explosiveness standpoint.

  • 170 FBS running backs carried at least 100 times last year.
  • 17 had a marginal explosiveness of plus-0.08 points per play or higher.
  • Four had a marginal efficiency of plus-9 percent or higher.
  • One had both: Etienne.

Granted, if he takes on a heavier load, those rate stats might shrink. But his potential is off the charts, and it’s hard to see Clemson’s No. 13 ranking in rushing success rate falling at all in 2018, especially when you take Bryant’s running ability and an excellent line into account.

Hyatt, Falcinelli, guard Sean Pollard, and tackle Tremayne Anchrum have combined for 76 career starts, and it almost goes without saying that some former blue-chippers are waiting: junior guard John Simpson, redshirt freshman Matt Bockhorst, incoming five-star Jackson Carman, etc.

Clemson v South Carolina
Tee Higgins
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

At some point, Bryant’s going to have to pass, though. And that will probably determine whether he gets to keep his job. Lawrence showed plenty of his five-star potential this spring, and Bryant’s 131.7 passer rating last year was much closer to that of Cole Stoudt (who started for part of 2014 before losing his job to a freshman Watson) than Watson or Boyd. On third-and-7 or more, he completed just 51 percent of his passes with one touchdown, two interceptions, and a 111.4 passer rating — not terrible in those circumstances, but maybe not good enough for a title contender.

Bryant loses two of last year’s three security blankets, but it’s hard to worry too much about the receiving corps. Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud combined for 110 catches and a 70 percent catch rate, but their combined 51 percent success rate was merely solid and matched by young backups Tee Higgins, Diondre Overton, and Amari Rodgers (combined: 50 catches, 53 percent success rate). All three were, of course, blue-chippers, and Higgins was, per the 247Sports Composite, an overall top-20 prospect in 2017. Two more top-50 freshmen (Derion Kendrick, Justyn Ross) enter the fold.

If the offense produces a lot more big plays, Etienne and Higgins might be the main reasons. Higgins gained 345 yards in just 17 catches, and his two biggest games (combined: nine catches, 262 yards against The Citadel and South Carolina) happened late. And if Bryant is able to get him the ball downfield, that might stave off Lawrence.

Defense

I think I had the same reaction as everyone else when both tackle Christian Wilkins and end Austin Bryant announced they would return for their senior season: “OH, COME ON.”

It’s almost unfair what the Tigers will bring up front. They ranked seventh in Rushing S&P+ and first in Adj. Sack Rate, and now eight of last year’s top nine linemen are back. That includes two ends (Bryant and 2017 breakout star Clelin Ferrell) who combined for 33.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks.

It also includes a quartet of tackles (Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, and backups Albert Huggins and Nyles PInckney) who boast an average size of 6’3, 311, and combined for another 18.5 TFLs and 9.5 sacks. Former blue-chippers like sophomore ends Xavier Kelly and Justin Foster and redshirt freshman tackle Jordan Williams will have to keep waiting their turn, and that says nothing of the newest set — freshman ends Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry were both top-15 prospects.

(Seriously, Clemson signed just 17 prospects in the 2018 class, but five of them were in 247’s overall top 26, and 12 were at least four-stars. Ridiculous.)

Clemson v South Carolina
Clelin Ferrell
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Oh yeah, and while coordinator Brent Venables does have to replace an awesome strongside linebacker in Dorian O’Daniel, every other linebacker — seniors Kendall Joseph and J.D. Davis, juniors Tre Lamar and James Skalski, etc. — returns. This is an embarrassment of riches.

As scary as this sounds, there’s still room for improvement up front. Clemson did, after all, rank only seventh in Rushing S&P+, and they ranked 39th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 79th in power success rate. They pursued as well as anyone, but they could still create a little more havoc against the run.

Against the pass, though, it would be just about impossible to improve. The Tigers were second in Passing S&P+, second in passing success rate, and first in Adj. Sack Rate. Five different Tigers recorded at least four sacks, and four are back. The secondary has a couple of pieces to replace — safety Van Smith and corner Ryan Carter, who led the secondary in havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, forced fumbles) — but will likely benefit from the nation’s best pass rush.

Besides, despite the loss of Carter, they basically still return two starting corners anyway, with Mark Fields returning from injury. He had three TFLs and two breakups in six games before succumbing to a foot issue. And sophomore A.J. Terrell defensed eight passes in a backup role, too, so returning starter Trayvon Mullen isn’t exactly going to be alone.

The Tigers are fine at safety, too: Tanner Muse and Isaiah Simmons combined for five TFLs and 11 breakups as a sophomore and redshirt freshman, respectively, and oft-used junior K’Von Wallace is back, too. The depth isn’t quite what it is elsewhere, but it’s far from perilous.

Barring a targeted run of injury at safety, Venables will almost certainly field his fifth straight top-6 (per Def. S&P+) defense. Clemson is paying him more than a lot of FBS head coaches make, and he’s backed up the lofty salary.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Louisville
Isaiah Simmons
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Over the last two years, Clemson has fallen from 50th to 85th to 114th in Special Teams S&P+. And that was with an awesome punt returner in Ray-Ray McCloud. He’s gone now.

Legs were the issue last year. Alex Spence and Greg Huegel combined to miss three PATs and go just 2-for-6 on field goals over 40 yards, and Will Spiers’ punts were a little bit short (40.6-yard average) and awfully returnable (9.8-yard return average). Clemson ranked 102nd in FG efficiency and 122nd in punt efficiency. That could have turned a few close games ... had Clemson actually been playing in close games.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Furman NR 47.5 100%
8-Sep at Texas A&M 24 11.9 75%
15-Sep Georgia Southern 106 36.4 98%
22-Sep at Georgia Tech 53 19.4 87%
29-Sep Syracuse 71 28.5 95%
6-Oct at Wake Forest 34 15.6 82%
20-Oct N.C. State 37 20.7 88%
27-Oct at Florida State 18 10.6 73%
3-Nov Louisville 29 18.6 86%
10-Nov at Boston College 48 18.9 86%
17-Nov Duke 40 22.2 90%
24-Nov South Carolina 35 20.7 88%
Projected S&P+ Rk 3
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 26 / 1
Projected wins 10.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 19.8 (3)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 12 / 9
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 0.1
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (73%, 75%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 11.7 (0.3)

Clemson was a hard team to evaluate in 2017; the Tigers mastered the art of doing just enough while keeping as many clubs in the bag as possible. That made it seem as if they had something else held in reserve, even though S&P+ didn’t ever totally trust the Tigers, who ranked in the teens for much of the season. They surged to seventh by drubbing South Carolina and Miami, then finished eighth after letting Alabama get away from them.

This year, with this ridiculous returning production and continued ace recruiting, the Tigers appear extremely likely to surge back toward the top. And since they avoid both Miami and Virginia Tech from the ACC Coastal, they play a schedule with just two projected top-25 teams. There are five other opponents between 29th and 40th, so there’s plenty of upset potential if Clemson keeps showing its A-game as little as possible. But unless FSU explodes in Willie Taggart’s first season, it’s hard to see any guaranteed landmine.

Clemson has depth, experience, athleticism, and room for growth. The ACC’s middle class is loaded this year, but Swinney’s Tigers are on an entirely different plane.

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