clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Clemson is again college football’s safest bet

The ACC is in transition, and while Clemson’s defense has some pieces to replace, the offense is terrifying.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Dabo Swinney
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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

If I were engineering exactly the type of program I would need to overtake Alabama in the hierarchy, I would need some obvious things: talent, for one. Pure coaching acumen. Money. Some tradition to lean on when trying to attain talent and money. Beyond the basics:

  • I would want to innovate offensively and defensively. I don’t want to be catching up to the game or try to bowl people over. I want opponents to have to keep up with scheme, too. I want more tools than I need.
  • Once I find coordinators capable of that, I want to keep them for as long as possible. I want to pay them well, but I also want to give them the tools they need and provide them with the most positive possible atmosphere. If they leave, it’s not only for a head coaching job, but a pretty good one.
  • I would want a layer of chips on shoulders. You have to sign a certain ratio of top recruits to give yourself a chance at the biggest prize. But I’d also make sure there are plenty of hungry three-star guys setting examples. Nothing does your program culture more favors than having guys destroying everything to see the field and holding everyone else accountable.
  • Top recruits or no, I want to consistently ace the quarterback and defensive tackle positions. Obviously. The best teams differentiate themselves there.
  • I want the ability to “click” as a season progresses. I want to play a lot of guys, figure out my best rotations, and have my team morph into the best version of itself. That might mean risking an early loss, but the late payoff would probably be worth that.

Aesthetically, then ... I want Clemson. I would want to build exactly what Dabo Swinney has been over the last decade.

Tactical innovation (and coaching consistency)

Swinney hired burgeoning spread-and-tempo master Chad Morris to bring life in 2011. Clemson has ranked outside of the Off. S&P+ just once since 2013.

Swinney hired spread-defender Brent Venables to run his defense in 2012. Clemson was 19th in Def. S&P+ by Venables’ second year and has enjoyed an average ranking of fifth since. Oklahoma’s average ranking since Venables left: 36th.

The growth has been slow, steady, and ongoing.

Morris left only for a head coaching job at SMU (and now Arkansas). Venables hasn’t left.

Chips on shoulders

Clemson headed into 2018 having easily cleared the recruiting bar required for making a sustained national title run. The Tigers’ roster was made up of 61 percent blue-chippers. But there was still room for players like former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow, three former three-star offensive linemen who combined for 24 starts, barely-four-star safety Isaiah Simmons (who has delivered five-star play), three-star defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, three-star linebacker Kendall Joseph, low-three-star safety K’Von Wallace, two-star linebacker J.D. Davis, and unrated safety Nolan Turner.

Quarterback progression

Tajh Boyd was excellent. Deshaun Watson was amazing. Trevor Lawrence might be the best yet.

Defensive tackles

Clemson had two tackles in the first round of the 2019 draft, plus two defensive ends in the first four rounds. There are more blue-chippers in the pipeline.

Clicking

  • Clemson nearly lost a few games in the first half of 2016, then did lose to Pitt. The Tigers won their last four pre-Bama games (including one against Ohio State) by an average of 27 points.
  • In 2017, they lost to Syracuse and again barely beat NC State, then crushed four straight opponents by an average of 34 before meeting Bama.
  • In 2018, Clemson barely won at Texas A&M, and Lawrence got hurt in a near-loss to Syracuse. The Tigers won their next nine pre-Bama games by an average of 37 points, then beat Bama by 28.

This has all come together better than it had any right to. Swinney has built a Bama-caliber wrecking ball with some freshness and underdog energy. And while Saban seemingly replaces half his staff and both coordinators on a year-to-year basis, Swinney continues to deal with minimal turnover.

The 2019 Clemson team will be a smidge thinner than its 2018 iteration, at least on defense. The Tigers have to replace four all-world defensive linemen, plus their top three linebackers and key contributors like Renfrow and All-American tackle Mitch Hyatt on offense.

They’re still loaded. And barring a perfectly timed upset, the Tigers are still going to run away with the ACC. S&P+ projections are conservative by nature, and Clemson’s still projected to win 11 regular season games. Alabama is still Alabama, but Clemson is the surest thing heading into 2019.

Offense

When you’re good at everything, your radar chart is a nearly perfect circle. (When you’re bad at everything, it looks like a squashed spider.) The scariest thing I can say about Clemson in 2019 is that the Tigers haven’t been a perfect circle yet.

Lawrence and 2017 starter Kelly Bryant split time over the first four weeks, as Bryant raised both his completion rate and yards per completion over his previous season totals.

Lawrence’s upside was too much to forego, however. He was promoted after four games, and Bryant took a grad transfer to Missouri.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Trevor Lawrence
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott broke Lawrence in cautiously. He averaged just 11.9 yards per completion in tied games, then opened things up when there was some cushion. They kept things balanced on standard downs, and the run game was north-south instead of east-west, designed not to lose ground.

They let him take some chances on passing downs, though, and while the efficiency was merely good (27th in passing-downs marginal efficiency), the Tigers were crazy explosive. On third-and-7 or more, Lawrence averaged 24.4 yards per completion. Renfrow and Amari Rodgers were around for horizontal passing emergencies, but Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross were so devastating that Renfrow’s catch total regressed.

Ross’ emergence changed everything. Another blue-chip freshman, Ross caught only nine balls in his first five games. But he averaged 3.1 per game and 19.5 yards per catch over the rest of the regular season, then caught 12 balls for 301 yards and three scores in two Playoff games.

Higgins, Ross, and Rodgers return, as do three more — Derion Kendrick, Diondre Overton, and slot T.J. Chase — who caught between 13 and 15 balls. Swinney brought in a pair of all-world recruits (Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata), but they might have to wait.

Clemson v Wake Forest
Justyn Ross (8) and Tee Higgins (5)
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Lawrence won’t have to pass all the time, though, not with Travis Etienne in the backfield. After an up-and-down freshman campaign, Etienne thrived with feature-back status last fall. The Tigers leaned on Etienne to bail them out against Syracuse, and he responded with 27 carries, 203 yards, and three scores. He averaged seven yards per carry in the CFP, too.

Etienne’s top backups are gone, but sophomore Lyn-J Dixon (who averaged 8.9 yards per carry!!) returns.

So does a majority of the starting line. Hyatt and two-year center Justin Falcinelli are the only players to replace, and four seniors with 67 combined career stars return.

Georgia Tech’s efficiency, with upper-tier explosiveness. Yeah, that’ll play.

Defense

A huge rotation allows you to build depth and keep lots of guys engaged, but it risks patches of sketchy play. But Clemson ranked second in Def. S&P+ in 2017 with 17 guys making at least 15 tackles and another 12 making at least six, then ranked third in 2018 with 18 guys at 15-plus and another nine at six-plus.

Venables’ ability to produce high-level stats with gigantic rotations is the best possible scenario. Granted, it helps when you a) play 14 or more games every year and b) usually have a big lead.

Those huge rotations will pay off in 2019. They better, because five of last year’s top six tacklers on the line are gone, as are five of seven at linebacker.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Xavier Thomas
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

There are still proven pieces. Sophomore end Xavier Thomas made 25 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss, Pinckney had 17.5 and 4.5, and end Justin Foster had 13 and six. At linebacker, Chad Smith still had 18 tackles, Shaq Smith (whose name showed up in the transfer portal recently) 13. And Thomas aside, all the names I just mentioned are juniors or seniors.

With these veterans and a swath of up-and-coming blue-chippers — sophomore tackle Jordan Williams, redshirt freshman ends K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll, redshirt freshman linebacker Mike Jones Jr., and the incoming first-years — Venables will probably get by.

ACC Championship - Clemson v Pittsburgh
Isaiah Simmons
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The front six/seven will be very good, even if it isn’t otherworldly like last year. And in theory, the secondary should pick up whatever slack is created by drop-off up front.

If there was any defensive weakness for Clemson last year, it was the occasional glitch in the secondary. The Tigers ranked 78th in big-play rate allowed on blitz downs and 26th in big-play rate allowed in open-play situations. Their overwhelming efficiency made sure that wasn’t a major issue, but there were three sophomores playing key roles in the backfield: Simmons, Turner, and corner A.J. Terrell.

They’re juniors now, and safeties Wallace and Muse are seniors. Simmons is one of the best back-line playmakers in the country. LSU’s Grant Delpit was the only other safety to combine at least 9.5 TFLs with at least seven passes defensed.

If there’s a run of injury at any level, Venables will be leaning on freshmen. But Swinney signed 16 defenders in this year’s class — he knew this attrition was coming, and if opponents can’t take advantage of it this year, Clemson’s experience level will be back to normal by 2020.

Special Teams

Special teams remains the last area of the game Swinney has to master. Clemson’s average Special Teams S&P+ ranking has been just 94.8 over the last four years; it was 95th in 2018.

That was dragged down last year by the legs. Clemson was 89th in field goal efficiency with Greg Huegel (now gone) and 94th in punt efficiency with Will Spiers (back). Granted, they solved this by never punting or settling for field goals, so this was a first-world problem.

Still, it’s not hard to see special teams flipping a close game ... if a Clemson game is ever close enough to flip.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
29-Aug Georgia Tech 89 35.9 98%
7-Sep Texas A&M 13 13.7 79%
14-Sep at Syracuse 56 22.8 91%
21-Sep Charlotte 120 50.2 100%
28-Sep at North Carolina 61 24.2 92%
12-Oct Florida State 28 21.5 89%
19-Oct at Louisville 87 30.1 96%
26-Oct Boston College 72 31.7 97%
2-Nov Wofford NR 52.0 100%
9-Nov at N.C. State 47 21.1 89%
16-Nov Wake Forest 62 29.3 95%
30-Nov at South Carolina 18 12.6 77%
Projected S&P+ Rk 3
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 3 / 8
Projected wins 11.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 25.4 (3)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 10
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 8.4
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (77%, 52%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 14.0 (0.0)

Clemson wasn’t really 28 points better than Alabama last year. S&P+ still graded the Tide better for the season as a whole (and does so heading into 2019 as well), and the title game’s strange “Alabama wins every first down, and Clemson wins every third down and red zone snap” formula wasn’t particularly replicable.

The Tigers still got the ring, though, their second in three seasons. And with maybe the most manageable schedule among any title contender, they’ll have the surest shot at reaching the CFP this year, too.

Texas A&M comes to town in week two, and the Tigers have to travel downstate to South Carolina over Thanksgiving weekend. I just named all the projected top-20 foes on the schedule. Florida State (28th) is the only other team higher than 47th.

The ACC is in transition, and Clemson is as powerful as ever. Barring injuries, Swinney will be able to deploy his large rotations, and Lawrence and the key starters will be off the field by mid-third quarter most of the time.

Saban can best Swinney in recruiting (at least, for now), but Swinney fills in the gaps with culture and continuity and maybe the only QB in the country who can rival Saban’s. And 2019’s payoff will likely be a fifth straight shot at Bama.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.