Wide receiver Tee Higgins has been the Tigers' most explosive weapon on offense thus far
In recent weeks, many college football analysts have posed the question, "What is wrong with Clemson?" Of course, the defending national champs are 6-0, so it can't be all bad.
But in some ways, the question is understandable. Even in many of the easy early-season victories, the Tigers just didn't look right, especially offensively. Then there was the fight to the finish with North Carolina that brought out all the naysayers.
In reality, this isn't foreign territory for Clemson. They have had other early-season struggles that are usually followed by development and then dominant performances leading to playoff wins. Why should this year be any different?
Here's a recap of what has happened to the Tigers to this point and what lies ahead.
Offensive MVP: WR Tee Higgins
Trevor Lawrence has been good, just not quite up to the insane expectation level that had been set coming into the year and Travis Etienne has been up and down. Then there's Higgins. The junior receiver leads the team with 24 receptions and those catches have gone for nearly 23 yards a pop. He also scored the biggest single touchdown of the year, a 38-yard scoring grab to put the Tigers ahead of UNC early in the fourth quarter.
Defensive MVP: LB Isaiah Simmons
His stats are really good: 51 tackles, eight for lost yardage including four sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. But his actual presence goes well beyond his numbers. He seems to be all over the field all the time and his leadership qualities have helped guide the young Clemson defense.
Best Moment of the First Half: First Half vs. Florida State
With an open date the week before, the Tigers spent two weeks hearing about how they were lucky to survive North Carolina. In truth, they were fortunate and they knew that better efforts were needed. Certainly, a better effort was provided in the opening 30 minutes of the Florida State game. It took Clemson all over 2:51 to find the end zone and the Tigers were back there again three times before the half ended. The Tigers outgained the Seminoles 367 yards to 63 in the first half, making the Carolina game a distant memory. The onslaught continued in the third quarter, but it was the opening response that sent out the message that Clemson is still Clemson.
Best Newcomer: DT Tyler Davis
Due to the losses of tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, the interior of the defensive line was a concern coming into the season. The play of the true freshman from Apopka, Florida, has turned the tackle position into an area of strength. Davis leads all the Clemson defensive linemen with 17 tackles, four and a half tackles for lost yardage, and three sacks. It was hoped that he could provide some depth at the position but he has done much more than that.
Biggest Surprise: Trevor Lawrence
Clearly, the sophomore hasn't been bad and he has led the Tigers to six wins. But coming off his 30-touchdown, four-interception freshman season, it is shocking that he has just 11 scoring passes and six picks halfway through the season. Clemson is still trying to figure out how to replace possession receiver Hunter Renfrow and as Lawrence becomes more in synch with this Tiger receiving group, his stats should improve drastically in the second half of the season.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Travis Etienne
If you look at the stat sheet right now, Etienne is having a pretty good season. He's got 589 rushing yards, is averaging seven yards per carry, and has found the end zone five times. But 205 yards were compiled in week one and 127 came in the most recent game against Florida State. In between, there wasn't a whole lot of excitement from No. 9. The Tigers' offense will go to another level if Etienne is productive on a week in, week out basis.
2. Cutting down on the turnovers
Part of this comes from Lawrence's six interceptions, but in the ACC only Virginia has given the ball over more than Clemson. Fortunately, the Tigers' defense is adept at creating their own turnovers, so Clemson is actually plus-one in turnover margin. But assuming Clemson makes the College Football Playoff, the Tigers can't be in the habit of giving elite teams extra opportunities. They have to start a trend of better ball security as the postseason draws near.
3. Continued development of the young defense
Despite losing all those front seven stars, Clemson's defense still ranks No. 6 nationally – and first in the ACC – in scoring. As guys like Tyler Davis, Xavier Thomas, and the rest of the youthful defenders get more reps, Brent Venables' unit should get better and better.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 30 at South Carolina
The Gamecocks know what it's like to take down a highly ranked team as they knocked off No. 3 Georgia in Athens this past Saturday. The Tigers have won five in a row in this series and the last three haven't been close. But this one is in Columbia and Will Muschamp's team could see their confidence grow following the upset of the Bulldogs.
2. Oct. 19 at Louisville
Last season was dreadful for the Cardinals and not much was expected in 2019 either. But new head coach Scott Satterfield has Louisville at 4-2 after an exciting 62-59 win at previously unbeaten Wake Forest. With a balanced attack, the Cardinals rank 16th in total offense at 489 yards per game.
3. Nov. 16 vs. Wake Forest
Though they lost that shootout to Louisville, Dave Clawson's team is 5-1 and find themselves just outside the Top 25 in both polls. Wake has lost 10 in a row to Clemson, hasn't been within one score of the Tigers since 2011, last won at Death Valley in 1998, and lost to the Tigers 63-3 last year.
4. Nov. 9 at NC State
While NC State has played Clemson much tougher than Wake Forest, the Wolfpack have lost seven in a row – and 14 out of 15 - to the Tigers. And though the Wolfpack are 4-2, this is not a vintage year in Raleigh. They do have a win over Syracuse, but they were beaten handily by West Virginia and Florida State in their only other games against Power 5 opponents.
5. Oct. 26 vs. Boston College
The Eagles are looking to break their own eight-game losing streak versus the Tigers. Star running back AJ Dillon is having another banner season but head coach Steve Addazio’s usually stellar defense ranks 121st nationally in yards per game allowed.
6. Nov. 2 vs. Wofford
Wofford's offense is not something Clemson sees on a regular basis. The Terriers average 357 yards per game on the ground and only throw the ball 10 times per game. But no one-dimensional FCS team is going to pose a challenge to a Tiger squad with sights set on earning a shot at defending their national title.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.