Despite losing several core pieces from last year’s championship team, the Clemson Tigers are once again right where we expected them to be — in the thick of the College Football Playoff chase. That’s what head coach Dabo Swinney has built, not just by recruiting at a high level, but also by instilling a culture where the team expects to win.
And win they have, six times this fall to be precise. Here’s a look at a few of the reasons why and what to expect for the rest of October, the month of November, and beyond.
Offensive MVP: QB Kelly Bryant
The Tigers are so balanced offensively that it’s hard to single out one player. So the pick is the quarterback that has 1,660 total yards and has accounted for 11 total touchdowns. Fortunately, the ankle injury he suffered in the Wake Forest game this past Saturday does not appear to be serious and with an off week following a trip to Syracuse, Bryant should be ready for the stretch run.
Defensive MVP: DL Austin Bryant
Much like the offense, there are so many valuable contributors that a number of players could have been selected. But Bryant has returned this season with a vengeance, leading the team in sacks, tackles for lost yardage, and coming up with a sensational one-handed interception against Virginia Tech.
Best Moment of the First Half: Defensive Domination of Auburn
It is true that the offense sputtered that day. But it didn’t have to be great. Auburn was held to just 117 yards of total offense and Jarrett Stidham was sacked 11 times. Auburn has scored 144 points in its last three games, all against SEC competition, making the Clemson performance even more impressive.
Best Newcomer: RB Travis Etienne
The freshman from Jennings, Louisiana, has provided an explosiveness to the running back group. Etienne (above, right) is averaging 8.2 yards per carry and is the leading ground gainer at his position. His five rushing touchdowns are second on the team behind Kelly Bryant's seven.
Biggest Surprise: CB Ryan Carter
Carter had been a valuable player during his first four years at Clemson. But in year five, the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder has become a lockdown cornerback. His improvement has solidified what many thought could be a weak spot of the Clemson defense.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Big Plays in the Passing Game
Kelly Bryant will continue to improve as a passer and there are weapons in Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow. With a solid running game, a good offensive line, and the continued progression of the quarterback, the Tigers should be able to connect on more plays downfield in the second half of the season. They are currently tied for 80th in pass plays of more than 10 yards, a ranking that is sure to improve.
2. Can the Defense Continue to Dominate?
Most likely. Clemson will face several different types of offenses from here on out, from Florida State’s mostly pro-style set to Georgia Tech’s option to Syracuse’s high-octane spread. But none do things that Clemson has never seen. This is a nasty group of defenders and they will be continue to be fun to watch.
3. Kicking Game
Greg Huegel tore his ACL earlier in the season and now it is Alex Spence that is doing the placekicking. Spence is a junior but has seen very little action due to Huegel’s effectiveness the past couple of years. No one really knows how Spence will respond to intense pressure because he has not seen it yet.
Ranking the Toughest Games Remaining on the Schedule
1. Nov. 4 at NC State
The Wolfpack stumbled in the season opener against South Carolina despite dominating many statistical categories, including total yards. Since that time, Dave Doeren’s team has gotten better and better, highlighted by a win over Louisville last Thursday night.
2. Nov. 11 Florida State
The Seminoles are not the team most thought they would be going into the year and the loss of quarterback Deondre Francois is not the only reason. The offensive line, which was a problem last year, has not improved so far this season. That’s not a good place to have a weakness when going against the Clemson defensive front.
3. Oct. 28 Georgia Tech
We don’t really know who Georgia Tech is at this point. But there will be more information provided during next week’s game pitting the Jackets against Miami. Defenses have to prepare in a different way for the Tech offense. But Clemson will have an extra week to get ready and they have faced the Jackets every year that Paul Johnson has been the head coach in Atlanta.
4. Nov. 25 at South Carolina
The Gamecocks have been wildly inconsistent this year, beating NC State to open the year and drubbing Arkansas this past week. But in between they fell to Kentucky at home and were uninspiring in a win over Louisiana Tech. Quarterback Jake Bentley has been hampered by the loss of star receiver Deebo Samuel, whose return this season is still up in the air.
5. Oct. 13 at Syracuse
On the road in a short week. There are your challenges. But the Syracuse offensive line has had trouble protecting quarterback Eric Dungey and their defense is not equipped to hold down the physical Tigers offense.
6. Nov. 18 Citadel
This game is situated right between Florida State and South Carolina. But The Citadel is not nearly strong enough to take advantage of the trap situation. Clemson will use this week as a way to fine tune things for the South Carolina game and the postseason.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.