Travis Etienne's breakthrough season earned him ACC Player of the Year honors
There was a lot of status quo during the 2018 college football season, with Clemson being a prime example. The Tigers came into the year as the No. 2 team in America, they were No. 2 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, and they are No. 2 as the four-team tournament gets underway.
But there were a lot of twists and turns in maintaining their spot in rankings. Here is a look back at the concluded regular season with some awards for the team that plans on finishing the season one spot higher than No. 2.
Offensive MVP: Travis Etienne, RB
The sophomore sensation had 1,463 yards on just 176 carries, making him the only back in America to gain more than 1,200 yards on fewer than 200 carries. The ACC Player of the Year's dynamic running took a ton of pressure off of freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Defensive MVP: Clelin Ferrell, DE
On a defensive line loaded with superstars, Ferrell stood out. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder led the ACC in sacks and was second in tackles for lost yardage. As a result, Ferrell garnered ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Best Freshman: Trevor Lawrence, QB
The five-star prospect delivered on his considerable promise by completing nearly 65 percent of his throws for 2,606 yards and 24 touchdowns entering the College Football Playoff. Perhaps most impressively, Lawrence only threw four interceptions on the season.
Best Play of the Season: Chase Brice's Fourth Down Completion to Tee Higgins vs. Syracuse
The Tigers trailed the Orange 23-20 with just under three minutes remaining in the game, Clemson was at their own 48-yard line facing 4th-and-6. Brice, the third-string quarterback that was in because Trevor Lawrence went down with an injury and Kelly Bryant left the team earlier in the week, threaded the needle to Higgins for a first down and a 20-yard gain. Five plays later, Travis Etienne ran in for what proved to be the winning score.
Best Performance by a Player: Travis Etienne vs. Syracuse
It did not look good entering the fourth quarter against Syracuse as Clemson trailed by 10 points with Trevor Lawrence on the bench with an injury. But Etienne took over the final 15 minutes, gaining 87 of his 204 yards in the in thr fourth quarter while scoring two touchdowns, including the aforementioned game-winner with 41 seconds remaining.
Best Game (Team Performance) 41-7 Drubbing of NC State
Considering the fact that the Wolfpack had played the Tigers very tough in recent years and that they were unbeaten and ranked 16th in the nation coming into the contest, Clemson’s thrashing of NC State was its best game of the season. Trevor Lawrence and Chase Brice combined for 380 yards through the air and the Clemson defense throttled Ryan Finley and the ACC’s top-ranked passing offense.
Defining Moment: The Comeback to Beat Syracuse
Clemson was a really good team with Kelly Bryant at quarterback, but head coach Dabo Swinney knew that something was missing early on, which is why Trevor Lawrence was inserted as the starting quarterback against Syracuse. But the Tigers were again off for the better part of the game. In the fourth quarter, a switch seemed to be flipped. Everyone on the field found another gear, the Tigers won the game, and they were never really threatened the rest of the season.
Biggest Surprise: Lyn-J Dixon, RB
The Butler, Georgia, product came to Clemson as a nice, four-star recruit with an impressive offer list. But he was not considered a prized jewel, as 247Sports listed him as the 12th-best prospect in the 2018 Clemson recruiting class. But from the moment he arrived on campus, Dabo Swinney and his staff knew they had something special. Though much of his 536 rushing yards came in mop-up time, Dixon’s star qualities were quite apparent.
Biggest Disappointment: Pass Defense against Texas A&M and South Carolina
Not much went wrong for the 13-0 Tigers, but the troubling coverage in the two games against SEC opponents raised some eyebrows. The 430 passing yards by Kellen Mond of A&M was concerning, but those issues appeared to be rectified until South Carolina’s Jake Bentley threw for 510 yards in the regular-season finale. Clemson held Pittsburgh to just eight passing yards in the ACC Championship Game, so things may be trending in the right direction, which better be the case with Ian Book and Notre Dame waiting in the College Football Playoff Semifinal.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most: Christian Wilkins, DL
First off, he’s a dominating defensive lineman that makes everyone around him much better. Replacing a first-round draft pick is never easy. But Wilkins also is a fun-loving guy that knows how to keep the ultra-competitive Tigers extremely loose.
Player to Watch in 2019: Xavier Thomas, DE
The freshman defensive end was actually someone to watch in 2018, as he had 7.5 tackles for lost yardage and three sacks. But with the entire starting defensive line moving on, the former five-star recruit will show in 2019 that he is ready to be the next great Clemson lineman.
Offseason Storyline: Trevor Lawrence Taking Control of the Team
You could not ask a freshman quarterback to do more than what Lawrence did this fall. But next year, as a sophomore, more will fall on his shoulders. The 2018 Clemson team was led by the experienced defensive line, but they won’t be around next season. Statistically, Lawrence doesn’t necessarily have to improve that much. Beginning this spring, though, the Cartersville, Georgia, native will have to begin to emerge as the leader of the 2019 Tigers.
— 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.