2017 was a rebuilding year for Clemson. Yes, a year in which they went 11-1 in the regular season, won the conference handily, and then made the semis of the College Football Playoffs was a low-expectation, rebuild year.
After losing the best player in program history in Deshaun Watson to the NFL in 2016 along with a slew of other talent that helped them to the national title that year, the Tigers only slipped up once during the regular season in 2017 during a trip to Syracuse. The Tigers would rebound all the way through dismantling Miami in the ACC Championship Game before losing to the Saban Death Machine in the first round of the playoff.
So what’s next for Dabo Swinney and the empire he has built? In 2018, anything less than a conference championship and finals appearance in the playoffs would be a disappointment. Despite one of the ugliest color schemes in modern college athletics, they are projected to be double digit favorites in every game this regular season.
Horrifyingly, almost no one. On offense, Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud are gone from the perimeter, but their losses will hardly be felt this season with experienced backups in Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, and Diondre Overton taking on more prominent roles. The offensive line loses Tyrone Crowder and Taylor Hearn, but you’re kidding yourself if you think there’s not a handful of blue chippers fighting for their starting spots.
One of the top 5 defenses in the country last year loses... a linebacker. Dorian O’Daniel is gone after leading the team in tackles and having a couple pick-sixes under his belt last season. Every other player on this defense returns.
In short, basically everyone. Kelly Bryant returns for his 2nd season at the helm of the mighty Clemson offense. However, stud QB recruit Trevor Lawrence is on campus now and will certainly be pushing for the starting job. Lawrence brings more of a threat in the downfield passing game, something that the Clemson offense of 2017 lacked under Bryant, despite his running and scrambling abilities. This deficiency was not even noticeable or exploited until they faced Alabama, the only defense in the nation statistically better than their’s.
Dynamic running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster return after getting over 100 carries last season between the two of them. Hunter Renfrow is back for his final season on the perimeter, and it will be interesting to see after his years of dominance if anyone has decided to cover him on third downs yet.
On defense, for some reason unknown to mankind, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant all return despite all being projected as first and second round draft picks. Oh yeah, and Dexter Lawrence will be starting beside them. To quote SBNation’s Bill C.’s Clemson preview, “Clemon’s first and second string defensive lines might both be top 10 in the country.” This defense gave up an average of 13.6 points per game last season, and is expected to improve. To quote Bobby Bowden,
If the Yellow Jacket offense can rush for over 100 yards against this front 7 in Week 4, I’ll be impressed. Clemson is the clear conference favorite and is expected to once again face Alabama in the national title game. The Tigers miss Miami and Virginia Tech from the Coastal Division this season and are projected to stroll through their regular season schedule. A conference championship is expected.
The only potential weak point, and I mean if we’re going to stretch for find one, is that there is an immediate drop-off in experience behind their top 3 corners. The Tigers have plenty of talent on the bench, but an injury or two in the defensive backfield would thrust inexperienced players who really haven’t seen the field into prominent roles.
If a rebuilding year in 2017 saw the Tigers of Death Valley East make the semis of the college football playoff, an appearance in the finals and perhaps a title are what are expected of them this season. Long gone are the days of “clemsoning,” underachievement, and for some reason losing in Bobby Dodd Stadium every visit. The Jackets will be facing an NFL-caliber defense, an offense loaded with blue-chip talent, and the ugliest color scheme in the nation matched with the most unoriginal mascot in college football.
Week 4 is probably not going to go well for us on The Flats.