This is the first in a series of team previews looking at Tech’s opponents in the upcoming season—how they did last year, how their roster has changed, and how they’re shaping up for the 2019 campaign. First up is a familiar foe that was... above average last year, to put it mildly.
For all but two seasons in Paul Johnson’s tenure, Tech opened the season with a tune-up game against an FCS opponent. Geoff Collins will get no such luxury in his debut. Instead, he draws a Thursday night road game in Clemson against the defending national champions, who just completed the first-ever 15-0 season at the FBS level and have won the ACC and reached the College Football Playoff in each of the past four years.
For a Tech team looking to collectively set its feet and show some progress in a transition year, there were probably more favorable Week 1 matchups out there... but here we are.
Last Season in Review
Clemson had two major scares in 2018: their 28-26 win at Texas A&M in Week 1 and their 27-23 escape against Syracuse in Week 5. The former was against a very talented A&M team in a tough road environment, and the latter was a game where Chase Brice, the third-string QB entering the season, had to play the majority of the game. In each of their other 13 games, Clemson won by a minimum of 20 points, culminating in a 27-point win over Notre Dame and a 28-point victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
So in summary, they were okay last year.
The breakthrough moment was Dabo Swinney’s decision to replace senior quarterback and returning starter Kelly Bryant with true freshman Trevor Lawrence. It took Lawrence a little time to settle in, and missing the Syracuse game right out of the gate didn’t help, but before too long he emerged as one of the nation’s best passers. Even if they had received only mediocre QB play, though, it’s likely Clemson would have still cruised to a playoff berth on the strength of their defense. The unit was anchored by an almost unfairly talented defensive line, which featured three eventual first-round draft picks, and a very effective group of linebackers.
When they were at full strength, Clemson simply outclassed everyone in the ACC. It’s hard to see that changing in 2019.
Most of the defensive front: One ray of hope for the rest of the ACC is that Clemson has to replace an obscene amount of talent here. All four starting linemen were taken in the NFL Draft, and three of them—defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and defensive end Clelin Ferrell—went in the first round. The top three inside linebackers are also gone, forcing Clemson to essentially have to rebuild the defensive front from the ground up. They use a nickel formation as their base package, so it’s more of a front six than a front seven, and the guys stepping in are all talented players who rotated in frequently last year. Still, if there’s a weakness to be found in Clemson’s 2019 team, this is it.
WR Hunter Renfrow: Renfrow needs little introduction—he was one of the most reliable slot receivers in the country for his entire career, consistently finding ways to get open at the marker on third down and in other crucial situations. He had 49 receptions for 544 yards and just one touchdown as a senior; all three of those numbers were down from the previous year, but defenses were undoubtedly paying more attention to him. Finding someone who can match his ability to find holes in the secondary will be a challenge.
OT Mitch Hyatt: The most significant loss up front for the offense is Hyatt, a four-year starter at left tackle who was named a first-team All-American in 2017 and 2018. One thing that will offset the blow is that Clemson returns three starters up front, all of whom will be seniors this fall. (Aside: the fact that Hyatt went undrafted was one of the more bizarre mysteries of the 2019 draft.)
QB Trevor Lawrence: Had he been eligible for the draft, Lawrence may well have been a top-10 pick after just one collegiate season. As it stands, he’s back and will almost certainly be even better in year two, which is a scary prospect. Lawrence carved up opposing defenses in 2018, completing 65.2% of his passes and throwing 30 touchdown passes against just four picks.
RB Travis Etienne: Etienne seized the lead back role this past season and never looked back. He finished with 1,658 yards and 24 rushing scores, averaging more than 110 yards per game and 8.1 yards per carry. Clemson always splits carries between a few running backs, but Etienne’s top two backups from a year ago are gone. If his touch count goes up, a 2,000-yard season isn’t out of the realm of possibility for his junior campaign.
WRs Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins, and Amari Rodgers: As if Lawrence’s return weren’t enough, he gets back some of his most dangerous weapons in the passing game. The biggest name is Ross, who delivered an even 1,000 receiving yards and averaged better than 21 yards per reception last year as a true freshman. Higgins, a rising junior, added 936 yards and a team-high 12 receiving touchdowns. Rodgers is fairly similar to Renfrow as a player and should step into the departed senior’s role fairly seamlessly.
NB Isaiah Simmons: Simmons is a prototypical modern nickel back: a guy with the size to play linebacker, the speed to play safety, and the awareness to switch between those roles as needed. He led Clemson with 88 tackles a year ago and did a little bit of everything out there. Getting him back is a huge boost that should help to offset the losses up front.
Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables: Countless teams have inquired about him as a head coaching candidate, but Venables has stuck around to run Clemson’s defense. Considering he gets paid a head coach’s salary to run a defense with blue-chip talent at every position, who can blame him?
CB Andrew Booth: Booth was the only five-star signee in Clemson’s 2019 class according to the 247Sports composite index. If Clemson had a weakness last year, it was the secondary, and if they aren’t up to par early this coming season, Booth will be one of the first guys in line to step in.
DT Tyler Davis: Given the losses up front, there’s plenty of room for Davis to make his mark as an interior lineman. He was Clemson’s only four-star defensive line signee in the class, and the Tigers have a bit more uncertainty at tackle compared to end.
All in all, expect Clemson to regress slightly on defense and to more than make up the difference in offensive improvement. Barring a catastrophic series of injuries, they’ll be right back in the national title hunt this fall.
Clemson’s biggest challenges will be early: a Week 2 home game against Texas A&M and a Week 3 trip to Syracuse. If they make it through the first three games unscathed, they’re almost in the clear. The only other worrisome games on their schedule are road tilts at NC State (whom they beat 41-7 a year ago) and South Carolina. Even if they drop one game along the way, they’re still the easy favorite to win the ACC and lock up a playoff spot.
As for the Week 1 matchup with Tech, well, one sportsbook declared Clemson a 34-point favorite earlier this summer. It’s extreme for a game between two conference rivals, but, well... one is undergoing an extreme rebuilding effort, and the other brings back most of the artillery from a national title-winning team. The odds of Tech pulling off the upset are comically slim, but as the saying goes: that’s why they play the games.
Plus it could always be worse. A game like this probably gets relegated to a noon kickoff on Raycom or something, right? Imagine if a matchup this lopsided were chosen for a nationally-televised weeknight game, or if it were somehow picked to be the marquee opener for a shiny new TV network. That would just be silly.