The 2020 Clemson football season ended in disappointing fashion as the Tigers fell to Ohio State 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal. Dabo Swinney has built the program to the point where success is measured in championships and the Tigers fell short of that goal this fall.
But playoff appearances — even when they now come on a regular basis — should be celebrated. Here is a look back at the season with some awards for this year's Tigers.
Offensive MVP: Trevor Lawrence, QB
It is true that the junior quarterback missed a couple of games and freshman D.J. Uiagalelei was outstanding in relief. Still, Lawrence had another remarkable campaign and was clearly the best offensive player. His 69.2 completion percentage, 9.4 yards per pass attempt, and 169.2 quarterback rating were career highs, which is saying something considering the numbers he put up during his first two years at Clemson. Lawrence will be the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft for a reason.
Defensive MVP: Bryan Bresee, DT
In what was a very difficult decision, the freshman from Damascus, Maryland, was the choice. Though he made plays – 6.5 tackles for lost yardage with four sacks – it was his presence that made the difference. Opposing offenses had to game plan for Bresee and that meant other defenders became more involved. James Skalski was an important piece when he was on the field and Baylon Spector had a big year with a team-leading 64 tackles. But what Bresee did on the interior was vital to Clemson's defensive success.
Best Freshman: Bryan Bresee, DT
If Bresee was the defensive MVP, then he has to be the best freshman. But even in this area, he received some stiff competition. Fellow defensive lineman Myles Murphy put up very good numbers on the outside and the two will be a hellacious pair to deal with over the next couple of seasons. Trenton Simpson was a valuable contributor at linebacker and wide receiver E.J. Williams was a factor late in the season. But the best freshman was the nation's top player in the 2020 recruiting class.
Best Play of the Season: Andrew Booth's one-handed interception against Virginia
E.J. Williams had a remarkable reception in the ACC Championship Game and Booth had a sprawling pick versus Pittsburgh. But the cornerback's interception on the road at Virginia tops the charts. The Cavaliers were in the red zone and threatening to make it a one-score game early in the third quarter when quarterback Brennan Armstrong lofted a pass towards Lavel Davis in the end zone. The ball sailed a bit inside and Booth reached back and palmed the ball, snatching away the Hoos' hopes.
Best Performance (Player): Trevor Lawrence vs. Georgia Tech
Lawrence threw for 404 yards and five touchdowns in the 73-7 beat down of the Yellow Jackets. Making this even more impressive is that Lawrence played just one series in the second half before heading to the sidelines.
Best Performance (Team): ACC Championship Game victory over Notre Dame
The Tigers were out to prove something after falling in double overtime in South Bend on Nov 7. With a healthy lineup, Clemson spotted Notre Dame three points early on before rolling to a 34-10 win. The Tigers outgained the playoff-bound Irish 541 yards to 263 and put the game away before halftime.
Defining Moment: D.J. Uiagalelei's big starts
In a year in which teams were measured in a large way by how they overcame adversity, Uiagalelei stepped to the plate and delivered when the best quarterback in the land was sidelined. Clemson was 1-1 in his two starts and was challenged by Boston College in that victory, but the Tigers never backed down and showed a glimpse of the future.
Biggest Surprise: Cornell Powell, WR
After catching 40 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns in four previous seasons, Powell closed out his career with a 53-882-7 stat line. He went from an afterthought to a potential NFL draft pick with one sensational fall.
Biggest Disappointment: The running game
The obvious answer was the Sugar Bowl. But over the course of the season, how Clemson ran the football was a problem. In 2018 and 2019, the Tigers averaged more than 240 rushing yards per game. This year the number dipped to 154. With Travis Etienne still in the backfield, the major difference was the four new starters along the offensive line. Depending on whether or not Jackson Carman heads to the NFL, all five starters could return up front, so development next year is certainly possible.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Travis Etienne, RB
If the rushing attack struggled with the superstar ball carrier, what will it be without him? Add in his improved receiving skills and it's likely that Clemson will need multiple backs to chip in and pick up the slack. Lyn-J Dixon, who has been the primary reserve for three years, and Chez Mellusi, with an average of 5.6 yards per carry on 27 attempts this season, are the two main contenders for the starting spot going into the spring. Also watch out for early entry freshman Will Shipley, the country's top all-purpose back recruit for 2020 according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Player to Watch in 2021: Justyn Ross, WR
While there are no questions about Ross' abilities, there are major concerns about his return to health. The star receiver that caught 112 passes for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons at Clemson missed the entire 2020 season with a spinal problem. There were doubts as to whether or not Ross would ever play again, but according to several reports, he is progressing well. Ross at 100 percent would provide a huge boost to D.J. Uiagalelei and the passing game.
Offseason Storyline: Putting the offensive skill pieces together
There are some issues on the back end of the defense, but the front seven will be so dominant that coordinator Brent Venables should be able to field another strong unit. On offense, while the line does have to improve, how the receivers and running backs can mesh with D.J. Uiagalelei is extremely important. Creating a running game and getting Justyn Ross back will be key elements to a potent offense, but finding other receivers to replace Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell also is key. Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata have also been held back by injuries and 2021 may be the year they put it all together. E.J. Williams developed into a reliable option this year and he could grow into a top target. Plus, three four-star receivers are coming in, headlined by Beaux Collins. The offense will be good; how good will depend on the emergence of the young skill players.
— 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.