In a world of uncertainty, there are few things we know for sure. One of those is that the Clemson Tigers have a good football program. A really, really good football program.
When the next season begins, the Tigers will be considered one of the front-runners for the national title. But the 2020 version is not without weaknesses. Here are three reasons Clemson will undoubtedly make the College Football Playoff and three reasons that may give you pause.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. The offensive backfield
In Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, Clemson may have the best quarterback and running back in the nation. The two All-Americans not only give the Tigers quick-strike ability, they also allow for a balance that no other team possesses. Both players will also be very motivated to enhance their NFL stock, but this is Clemson under Dabo Swinney, meaning individual honors come as a result of the team's success.
On top of those two Heisman candidates, Clemson has depth. Lyn-J Dixon ran for 635 yards last season and would be a 1,000-yard rusher if he were the starter. Despite saying good-bye to Chase Brice, who transferred to Duke, Clemson will have Taisun Phommachanh and prized 2020 signee D.J. Uiagalelei behind Lawrence. So the cupboard, for now and in the future, is stocked pretty full.
2. Brent Venables knows how to build a defense
He's done it before and he'll do it again. After replacing the entire defensive line last year, all four starters are back up front. Tyler Davis will look to build off an exceptional freshman year and Xavier Thomas has the potential to be a first-round draft pick. Plus, Bryan Breese and Myles Murphy are two freshmen that could see early action. Linebacker James Skalski and corner Derion Kendrick will take on leadership roles on the back end.
But this side of the ball is really about Venables. After the 2014 season, the Clemson defense lost several stars including Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett, and Stephone Anthony. And in 2015, the Tigers were 10th in total defense. Following the championship run in 2018, when the entire defense line departed for the NFL, Clemson was third in scoring defense and sixth in scoring defense in 2019. To expect anything less than dominance out of a Venables unit is simply foolish.
3. The schedule
Unless someone like Florida State or Louisville really jumps up in the Atlantic, there is no one on the Tigers' ACC schedule that will present a challenge. There is the possibility that North Carolina develops into a force in the Coastal, making the ACC Championship Game a contest. But in reality, that side of the league is still a jumbled mess, and there's no guarantee any team will step up this year.
That means that the only real threat to a Clemson return to the playoff is the game at Notre Dame. The Irish should be a very good team once again, but they still haven't beaten a high-end program in a big spot during the Brian Kelly era. Plus, Clemson always plays its best football late in the season when the games really matter.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. Inexperience at receiver
Amari Rodgers has played a lot of football, but beyond him there is little veteran presence out wide, a situation complicated by the absence of Justyn Ross, who underwent surgery to correct a spinal issue and is out for the season. Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. have a world of talent, but they haven't really produced much yet. They will all be helped by the return of tight end Braden Galloway from suspension. Lawrence needs all of these young players to emerge if the passing game is to continue to roll along.
Where matters could become even trickier is if more injuries pop up. Ross' injury already moved everyone else on the depth chart up a notch. Receivers like Brannon Spector and Cornell Powell may be serviceable options, but Swinney does not want to have to rely on them too much.
2. Inexperience on the back seven of the defense
Yes, Venables is a master of the rebuild, but there are some questions in this area. Skalski and Kendrick are the only starters returning, and Kendrick is still fairly new to the corner position. And though Clemson has recruited incredibly well in recent years, projected starters like Lannden Zanders, Nolan Turner, and Baylon Spector were not recruits that were coveted by many other major powers.
The heavily recruited players on the back of the Clemson defense are very young. Andrew Booth Jr. is a sophomore cornerback that played in just four games last year. Sheridan Jones played some but still is green. Fred Davis II and Trenton Simpson are two true freshmen who could help out at corner and linebacker respectively. It will be interesting to see if experience or talent wins out when Venables puts together his two-deep.
3. Kicking game
Specifically, placekicking. Punter Will Spiers has been inconsistent during his time at Clemson, but he was much improved as a junior. Very few of his punts were returnable, and his 40.6 net yards per punt ranked in the top 25 in FBS. If he maintains that level, Clemson will be fine.
But B.T. Potter was shaky at times as the team's field goal kicker. He has a big leg and was one of the best in that nation at booting kickoffs out of the end zone. But Potter was just 13-of-21 on field goals and missed four kicks inside of 40 yards. Interestingly, he made all three of his attempts outside of 50 yards, meaning he was 10 of 18 on anything 49 yards and closer. Potter's inaccuracy didn't cost Clemson last year, but that possibility exists in 2020.
Considering that the Tigers have made the College Football Playoff each of the past five seasons and the ACC looks no closer to developing a second contender, it seems clear that Clemson will be among the final four. Assuming there aren't any more major injuries at receiver, Lawrence will make the passing game deadly. The offensive line has to be pieced together with only one starter returning, but the new starters have gotten plenty of reps over the years.
The youth at linebacker and in the secondary will be mitigated by a ferocious defensive front. If Thomas can finally unleash his sky-high potential, Clemson could once again have the best defensive line in America. Plus, while the new defensive starters will be learning on the fly, Kendrick and particularly Skalski will be there to put people in the right places.
Over the past few years, usually in late September or early October, Clemson is challenged by a heavy underdog. Last year it was North Carolina, and Syracuse was the troublemaker in the two previous seasons. But Clemson always survives and reaches the College Football Playoff. And the Tigers will again this year.
— 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.