Countdown to Kickoff: 26 days
As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what Georgia Tech’s opponents have to offer.
2016 belonged to Clemson. Dabo Swinney and his Tigers shook off years of coming up short and won the program’s second National Championship, getting revenge on Alabama in the process. As the team turns the page to the 2017 season, questions abound for the defending champions. They have to replace a ton but remain one of the most talented and well coached teams in the conference. How far will Clemson fall this season? Will they fall at all?
There’s really no other place to start than with QB DeShaun Watson. The CFP National Championship Game MVP was the Tigers’ dynamic leader and field general for the better part of the last three seasons. In his time with the Tigers, he lost 3 games that he started: 2014 to Georgia Tech (in which he injured his knee early in the game), the 2015 National Championship game to Alabama, and last season to Pitt. Watson will be remembered as one of the best, if not the single best, player in Clemson history.
Even if Watson was Clemson’s only loss, it would be reasonable to expect the Tigers to take a step back. He’s far from their only loss. On the offensive side, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Artavis Scott, WR Mike Williams, TE Jordan Leggett, and C Jay Guillermo were all key contributors who have graduated and moved on from the program. The defense was hit hard too, with All-Americans at all three levels graduating: DT Carlos Watkins, LB Ben Boulware, and CB Cordrea Tankersley. S Jadar Johnson, who started all 15 games last season, also graduated and leaves a hole in the back of the secondary.
Luckily for them, the Tigers’ roster is still loaded with talent. The strength of this team will undoubtedly be in the trenches, where they return 4 starters on the offensive line and 3 on the defensive line. Preseason All-Americans OT Mitch Hyatt and OG Tyrone Crowder will pave the way on the OL, while four other returnees with starting experience will compete to fill out the line. On the other side, versatile DL Christian Wilkins will likely slide inside after earning All-American honors at defensive end in 2016. He’ll line up next to 2016 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Dexter Lawrence. They’ll be flanked by DE Clelin Ferrell, who had 6 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in his 2016 freshman campaign.
As a whole, the defense should continue to be one of the nation’s best. Aside from the returnees on the line, SLB Dorian O’Daniel and MLB Kendall Joseph are studs, as are returning DBs Ryan Carter and Van Smith. They’ll be a battle to figure out who will round out the secondary to replace Tankersley and Johnson, but the Tigers have plenty of players who have already produced in backup roles.
Returning production is bit more scarce at the skill positions. The WR position should be pretty strong with Deon Cain stretching the defense and Ray-Ray McCloud (well, assuming he stays at WR) and Hunter Renfrow patrolling the middle of the field. The returning running backs have combined for less than 130 career carries, but they’re an interesting bunch with a ton of potential. Sophomore Tavien Feaster is probably the favorite to step into the starting roll but bruisers C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice will get plenty of opportunities. We’ll cover the QB situation in a little bit.
Clemson’s 2017 recruiting class ranked 16th nationally and 3rd in the ACC according to 247. The class was fairly small, with just 14 enrollees, but just as talented as we’ve all come to expect from Clemson under Dabo Swinney. The three players to keep an eye on this season are WR Tee Higgins, CB AJ Terrell, and QB Hunter Johnson. Higgins, one of the best prep wide receivers in the country, will get every opportunity to step in and make an impact from day one. At 6’-4”, he could be the perfect replacement for Mike Williams. Terrell, the 6th ranked CB in the 2017 class, is already drawing rave reviews in practice for his cover skills and will push hard for playing time.
Let’s start with what we know. Clemson’s defense is going to be really, really good. They’ve ranked in the top 6 of Def. S&P+ each of the last three seasons despite heavy turnover each year. In fact, this is one of the most experienced defenses Clemson has had under coordinator Brent Venables. The defensive line is going to get after quarterbacks in a big way and should be solid against the run. There are a few holes in the secondary but the guys lined up to fill the holes have a decent amount of game time under their belts and should be just fine.
The offense will be strong up front but beyond that there’s a lot of unknowns that really boil down to one question: who’s going to play quarterback? The only returning letterman is junior Kelly Bryant, who was third string behind Watson and Nick Schuessler in 2016. Swinney has said that the job is Bryant’s to lose but he faces stiff competition from the other quarterbacks on the roster, especially freshman Hunter Johnson.
In two seasons with the Tigers, Bryant was thrown only 18 passes, all of them coming in garbage time. He’s almost a complete unknown as a passer. That said, he’s shown signs of being a dynamic runner. If the stable of running backs lives up to their talent and the offensive line is as strong as expected, rolling out a run heavy attack helmed by Bryant could be enough for Clemson to win most of their games. That said, Bryant doesn’t have the same blue chip background that Hunter Johnson brings to the table. ESPN’s top ranked QB in the 2017 class, Johnson is a strong armed, pro-style quarterback but isn’t much of a runner. He probably has a higher individual ceiling than Bryant, but will the offense be better with a quarterback who’s not a threat to take off and run? Hard to say. Looming over this season’s quarterback competition is 2018’s top recruit, Trevor Lawrence, who is firmly committed to Clemson and is already being called one of the best quarterback prospects in recent memory.
Regardless of whom ends up under center for Clemson in Week 1, the offense is likely to take a step back this season. Losing an All-Time great college football quarterback will do that to any team. However, there are pieces in place for that regression to be very, very slight. If Bryant or Johnson (or So. Tucker Israel or R-Fr. Zerrick Cooper or Fr. Chase Brice) end up being above average signal callers, the Tigers could pair a dynamic offense with a downright nasty defense and find themselves right back in the playoff discussion. I don’t think the transition to the post-Watson era will be quite that smooth, but the Tigers will still be just fine.
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 ACC)