As we’ve crossed off one win on the 2017 road to the College Football Playoff, Auburn fans can now turn their attention to the biggest game of the early schedule. Auburn travels to play Clemson this coming weekend, with kickoff set for 6 pm CST on ESPN. One thing’s for sure, the Tigers will come out victorious.
We got the buzz on the Purple and Orange bunch from Shakin’ the Southland’s Ryan Kantor, for part one of a two-part lead up to this huge early-season matchup.
Alright, you guys won a national championship (and we’re forever grateful to you for beating who you did), but now you’re our opponent again. We’re familiar with winning a title, losing a generational quarterback, and attempting to follow up the success the next year. What sense have you gotten from Dabo and the team in the offseason that this will be a reloading year as opposed to a rebuilding year?
Clemson lost a great deal of talent from their Alabama-vanquishing championship squad. QB Deshaun Watson, now on the Texans, will be toughest to replace, but he’s far from the only star departing. WR Mike Williams, TE Jordan Leggett, and RB Wayne Gallman all played huge roles in the offense that wore out the Crimson Tide defense.
That said, Clemson has reached the point where they’re truly reloading. We’ve seen it two years in a row on defense. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and Stephone Anthony departed after the 2014 season, but the defense remained strong in 2015. Then Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Mackenzie Alexander, and TJ Green departed and the defense was just as good in the Tigers national championship redemption story. Now the offense will go through a similar test.
Co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott (“ScElliot”) haven’t faced such a challenge yet (as they enter year three after replacing Chad Morris), but I am a big believer in them and expect the offense to be good, even if no longer elite.
Obviously, the questions about new Clemson players start at quarterback with Kelly Bryant. His game action is fairly limited, and it seems like he’s more of a runner just from looking at the stats from the past couple of years. What’s his offseason been like, and is he the kind of quarterback that’s a stop-gap for Trevor Lawrence coming in next year, or will he be able to hold the position for his senior year next year?
A week ago, we knew almost nothing. His previous garbage time appearances were filled with simple designed QB-run plays. An injured finger in the Spring Game preventing him from showing any of the “supposed progress” we heard about in the offseason.
In Clemson’s 56-3 dismantling of Kent State, Kelly Bryant gave fans reason for optimism. He completed 16-22 passes for 236 yards and a TD. He was accurate on deep passes and deadly in the read option game. He didn’t flash the ability to complete the over-the-middle NFL-caliber throws we were treated to under Watson, but he was far more than a sufficient stop-gap. All that said, Kent State struggles in the MAC, so Auburn will be the real test, but week one was extremely encouraging.
It’s not fair to either Trevor Lawrence or Kelly Bryant to anoint one of them presumptive 2018 starter now. The high school highlights (he was recently on ESPN) I’ve seen of Lawrence were amazing, but let’s keep expectations realistic. Even Watson didn’t start game one as a true freshman.
Last year in Jordan-Hare, we watched Mike Williams abuse us with those back-shoulder fade routes, but now he and Artavis Scott are gone. We’re familiar with Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow, but who else is Bryant going to have to throw to, and will they be as effective as Williams was in 2016?
Wide receiver has been a position of strength for the Tigers for most of the Swinney era. Even with the departure of two more great ones, that won’t change this year. Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow will start at the boundary and in the slot, respectively. At the field WR position, the Tigers start the shifty Ray-Ray McCloud, who also returns punts.
Wide receiver is likely the position of the best depth for the Tigers too (aside from QB – awkward!). Former four-stars sophomore Deondre Overton, sophomore Cornell Powell, and RS junior Trevion Thompson form an outstanding second string. Exciting freshman five-star Tee Higgins and four-star add additional high-upside depth.
While I’m not sure any are quite as good as Mike Williams yet, this is a major strength for the offense that will greatly help new QB Kelly Bryant this season.
On defense, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins are both future first-round picks, but what can you tell us about the rest of the starters? How’s the depth? What’s the biggest worry defensively?
The starters on the defensive line may be the best in the nation, but behind them depth is a major concern. Not only did Carlos Watkins head to the NFL, but DT Scott Pagano and DE LaSamuel Davis transferred. Then second-string DE Richard Yeargin injured his in a car accident neck (similar to the Mike Williams 2015 injury). If any starters get injured or even just winded, we’ll be relying on totally unproven backups.
The linebacking corps sustained the loss of Ben Boulware, but brought back everyone else and should be very good. The secondary doesn’t have the high-upside talent, but has two fifth-year seniors at CB and athletic safeties.
If the D-line stays healthy, most expect the defense to be the strength of the team.
As for the schedule this year, does it shake out in a way that has Clemson fans looking at another ACC Championship and Playoff berth? After you play Auburn, it’s on the road to tangle with Louisville in a rematch of one of the best games from 2016. There’s the road trip at Virginia Tech, and the late-season home game against Florida State, which could end up being a defacto playoff quarterfinal. Do the Tigers win another conference title?
Here’s a dirty little secret most ACC bloggers likely won’t admit. While the ACC had a banner year and was probably the best conference in 2016, they’ll take a huge step back this year. The QB play in the conference last year was head and shoulders above other conferences, but now Brad Kaaya (Miami), Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech), Jerod Evans (Virginia Tech), Nathan Peterman (Pittsburgh), Mitchell
Trubisky (North Carolina), and of course Deshaun Watson (Clemson) have departed. National perception tends to lag behind though. The ACC has been underrated for a few years and will likely be overrated this year.
If Clemson can get by Auburn (a major question mark), there’s good reason to believe they can get to the November showdown against FSU with a chance to win the division and play in the college football playoff for the third consecutive season.
***NOTE: The ACC did not fare all that well on opening Saturday. Clemson beat Kent State, yes, but FSU lost to Alabama, UNC lost to Cal, NC State lost to South Carolina, Pitt needed overtime to beat Youngstown State, and Louisville had to come from behind to beat Purdue. The other wins were over Bethune-Cookman, NC Central, William & Mary, Presbyterian (Thu.), Central Connecticut State (Fri.), and Northern Illinois (Fri.).
We’ll have Part Two coming up later this week with a prediction from the other sideline. For now, get ready for a huge game on Saturday night in Death Valley. War Eagle!