Travis Etienne is just one reason why the Tigers are in good shape to defend their national title
Four years, four College Football Playoff appearances. Two titles. Another championship game appearance. Recruiting that has gone to another level. And a continuity on the coaching staff that is envied by all in the game.
Clemson has now reached — if not surpassed — the Alabama sphere in the college football universe. Despite what kind of bus Dabo Swinney says that Clemson is on, everyone is looking up at the Tigers. So is there even a question as to if Clemson will make the playoff?
Perhaps not, but Clemson does have some holes to fill and there are 13 opponents standing in their way. Here are the whys (and the more difficult to uncover) why nots as it relates to Clemson's CFP future.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. The quarterback and his receivers
We all know the story, but it is still hard to believe. Trevor Lawrence was just a freshman last year. He will only get better. His room for growth may not be as high as some others because he started out at such an elite level, but his ceiling has not yet been reached. And even if he doesn't improve, the 65 percent passer with 30 touchdowns and just four picks is plenty good enough.
The same could be said for his receivers. Justyn Ross can certainly get better in his timing and route running. But 46 catches for 1,000 yards and nine scores is quite impressive for anyone, let alone a true freshman. Tee Higgins will be draft-eligible in 2020 and another huge season will only enhance his stock.
Hunter Renfrow needs to be replaced and Amari Rodgers is looking to get back from an ACL tear, so a possession receiver is needed. But the position is so stocked with established stars and talented youngsters, that five-star prospect Derion Kendrick was moved to defense and won't be coming back. In total, Clemson has the most dangerous passing game crew in America.
2. Travis Etienne ain't bad, either
The Jennings, Louisiana, native was very good as a freshman and then blew up as a sophomore, rushing for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns. The speedster is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, but at 5-foot-10, 215 pounds he is also strong enough to put his head down and get the tough yards when need be.
It also wouldn't be a shock to see Etienne's role expand in the passing game this year. He only caught 12 passes last season, but with Renfrow gone, the Tigers' back could be used more on swing passes and screens to pick up first downs. No matter how he is used, he will be one of the top backs in America and will give the Clemson offense amazing balance.
3. Athleticism on defense
Coaches around the ACC (and all over the country) are thrilled that Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant are off to the NFL. Unfortunately for the competition, there's a new wave of exciting Clemson defenders ready to step up and there are still some returning veterans that are big, strong, and fast.
Xavier Thomas showed in a reserve role last year that he will be the next great Clemson defensive end. On the other side, Justin Foster has been eagerly waiting his turn but will be pushed by redshirt freshman K.J. Henry. Behind them on the next level, linebacker Isaiah Simmons is a freak athlete that led the team in tackles in 2018. In the secondary, Kendrick will provide more athleticism to a group featuring returning starters Tanner Muse, K'Von Wallace, and A.J. Terrell.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. The middle of the defense
Up front, it isn't necessarily the two starters that are concerning. Nyles Pinckney proved his worth after Dexter Lawrence's suspension last year and Jordan Williams has a world of potential. Xavier Kelly can sub in, but after that it will be a bunch of youthful, untested players. An injury at defensive tackle would be extremely damaging and both Pinckney and Williams did not participate this spring due to nagging ailments.
Depth at linebacker is also an issue with Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar off to the next level and possible starter Shaq Smith transferring to Maryland. Chad Smith and James Skalski have seen quality minutes, but they are not on the level of Joseph and Lamar, and should one of them go down, things would get really thin.
2. Defending the downfield pass
The same guys in the secondary — minus Trayvon Mullen — are back and it was this unit that caused a bit of consternation at times. The Tigers led the world in sacks and that played a big part in Clemson's 24th-ranked pass defense. But when the opposing quarterback had time to throw, big plays could be made.
The Tigers allowed 45 pass plays of 20 or more yards, a number that ranked 85th in the country and their five plays of 60-plus yards was 119th nationally. It was especially apparent in the games against Texas A&M and South Carolina, but was obviously shored up during the postseason.
While the front seven will still create havoc, it probably will not rush the passer as well as last year's line did. If these issues continue to flare up, and the other team's quarterback doesn't feel as much heat, more big plays could be the result.
3. Shuffling along the offensive line
The Tigers return four offensive linemen that have starting experience. But the two players lost up front played the most important positions on the line and were team leaders. Mitch Hyatt was a four-year starter at left tackle and though Jackson Carman comes in with a long list of accolades, no one really knows how he will do protecting Lawrence's blindside.
At center, Sean Pollard will take over for Justin Falcinelli, a gritty veteran that made himself into an All-ACC performer. Pollard has started 23 games in his career and was also an all-conference selection last year, but all of his time has been spent at guard and tackle. Gage Cervenka will be a starting guard, a position at which he started seven games in 2018.
The four players returning on the line are solid, experienced players. But there could be an adjustment as players are shuffled around. As concerns go regarding the Clemson offense, this is the biggest.
Offensively, the reasons for questioning Clemson seem rather nit-picky. As long as Jackson Carman is capable — and there's no reason why he can't be better than capable — then the line will be fine. If Amari Rodgers isn't healthy, the Tigers will have to find a possession receiver to go along with their homerun hitters. But it is possible that someone like junior Cornell Powell or prized freshman Joseph Ngata steps into that role.
There's no doubt that the Clemson offense will be explosive and if there are any roadblocks to the playoff they will show up on defense. However, coordinator Brent Venables has rebuilt this defense a time or two and the developing players are highly skilled. Yes, they may get hit with a big pass play and injuries to the front seven could be problematic, but Clemson has some nice answers to a lot of their questions.
There'’s also the schedule, which outside of a visit from Texas A&M in week two and a trip to the Carrier Dome in week three, is not threatening. In fairness, A&M gave the Tigers a struggle last year and should be even better this season and Syracuse has shown that they do not fear Clemson. But in Bill Connelly's Clemson preview on SBNation (one he wrote prior to making the move to Bristol), the Tigers were listed as at least a 13-point favorite in every game.
Strange things can happen. But it would take one of those bizarre occurrences to keep Clemson out of the College Football Playoff.
Athlon's Projected Final Ranking: 2
Athlon's Projected Final Record: 13-0 (8-0 ACC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 11.5
5Dimes projected Over/Under Odds: 11.5
— 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.