The Tigers rank No. 7 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
The defending national champions will look different, but that doesn’t mean Clemson’s not a threat to repeat. Dabo Swinney and his coaching staff have done an incredible job of building a deep roster, as the Tigers return 12 starters and a host of young guys ready to make a name for themselves. On offense, all of the attention will be on whoever replaces Deshaun Watson, but Clemson also will have a new lead running back and needs playmakers to emerge in the passing game. The defense is in pretty good shape, especially up front. This clearly isn’t the same team that climbed back to the top of the college football mountain, but don’t expect these Tigers to give up their title without a fight.
Previewing Clemson Football’s Offense for 2017
Clemson’s offense played a key role in its first national title since 1981; the Tigers averaged 39.2 points and 503.7 yards per game. But Dabo Swinney and his staff face some major challenges in keeping the unit as potent as ever.
Gone are Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson, one of the best players in program history, tailback Wayne Gallman (1,133 yards, 17 touchdowns) and three of the top four pass catchers, including Mike Williams (98 catches for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns) and one of the nation’s top tight ends in Jordan Leggett.
Junior Kelly Bryant, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and five-star true freshman Hunter Johnson (an early enrollee) spent spring battling to replace Watson. All three are mobile passers, and while Bryant is the favorite to start, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the strong, accurate Johnson push to replace him.
In the backfield, sturdy C.J. Fuller will get first crack at carries, but if gamebreaking sophomore Tavien Feaster gets better without the ball, he’s a star in waiting.
Junior Deon Cain (38 catches, 724 yards, nine touchdowns as a sophomore) is an excellent deep threat, and Ray-Ray McCloud will fill the shoes of speedy Artavis Scott. Former walk-on and national championship hero Hunter Renfrow is the Tigers’ most dependable receiver.
The offensive line will be a cornerstone for the unit. Four starters return, led by All-ACC left tackle Mitch Hyatt and All-ACC right guard Tyrone Crowder. There’s plenty of offensive talent, but the question is how it will all fall into place.
Previewing Clemson Football’s Defense for 2017
While there are a few key questions, the group should be a strength again in 2017, with a nasty defensive line as an excellent foundation.
Junior Christian Wilkins, who had 13.0 tackles for a loss last fall, will form one of the nation’s best defensive tandems alongside Dexter Lawrence, who looked NFL-ready as a true freshman. Clelin Ferrell looks to build on a breakout College Football Playoff as Clemson’s next great defensive end.
Linebacker Ben Boulware’s graduation after piling up 131 tackles will be felt, but junior Kendall Joseph, coming off a 124-tackle season, will be a capable replacement in the middle. Senior Dorian O’Daniel and sophomore James Skalski are athletic talents who’ll flank him quite well.
Seniors Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond provide veteran leadership at cornerback, and watch out for Mark Fields and sophomore Trayvon Mullen, who emerged as a starter alongside Carter ahead of Edmond in spring. At strong safety, sophomore Tanner Muse appears to be in line to replace graduated Jadar Johnson.
Previewing Clemson Football’s Specialists for 2017
Greg Huegel returns as one of the ACC’s most reliable kickers after hitting 14-of-19 field goals and 71-of-73 extra points. But Clemson needs to find a punter as well as a new long snapper and holder. Will Spiers, Michael Batson and Carson King competed this spring to replace steady punter Andy Teasdall. McCloud and Feaster are capable kick returners.
Clemson reached college football’s pinnacle with its win over Alabama, but staying there won’t be easy. Over the last 25 years, only two teams (Alabama and Nebraska) have repeated as consensus national champions.
The Tigers must overcome significant offensive skill position losses as well as the graduation of Boulware, the emotional leader of the defense. The schedule sets up well, with Auburn and Florida State at home, but given the offensive uncertainty, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a very slight step back this fall.
NATIONAL RANKING: 7
ACC ATLANTIC PREDICTION: 2
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