At 6-0, Clemson is exactly where everyone thought the Tigers would be. They remain the clear ACC favorite and are expected to be part of the College Football Playoff. But the first six games were not easy nor were they boring.
There were scares in College Station and at home against Syracuse, and Kelly Bryant is no longer part of the program. Through it all, Clemson has come out clean and may be just now putting all the pieces together.
Here’s a look back at how Clemson has gotten to this point and what may lie ahead.
Offensive MVP: RB Travis Etienne
The sophomore from Jennings, Louisiana, was not asked to do too much in the first couple of games. But he ripped Georgia Southern for 162 yards and has not slowed down since. Without his 203 rushing yards and three scores, Syracuse would have beaten Clemson on Sept. 29. He scored three more times last week against Wake Forest and had 167 yards on just 10 carries. Etienne has been the most reliable and explosive player on the Clemson offense.
Defensive MVP: DE Clelin Ferrell
On a team filled with defensive stars, Ferrell has shined the brightest. His six sacks not only lead the team, that total is also tied for second in the conference and tied for eighth nationally. He also has two other tackles for lost yardage, giving him eight total on the year. His disruption has been the most impactful part of the dynamic Clemson defense.
Best Moment of the First Half: Comeback Win Over Syracuse
It didn’t look good. When Eric Dungey got in for a Syracuse touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Orange went up 23-13, quarterback Trevor Lawrence was injured, and the Tigers were having trouble moving the ball on the Cuse defense. But then Etienne exploded, replacement quarterback Chase Brice made a few key plays, and the Clemson D clamped down and allowed Syracuse nothing. The resulting victory may have acted as a galvanizing moment for a Clemson team that came into the season with sky-high expectations, but hadn’t been as sharp as many expected.
Best Newcomer: QB Trevor Lawrence
How good has the freshman from Cartersville, Georgia, been? Good enough that Kelly Bryant decided to move on. Considering the pressure that came with the extraordinary hype, his performance has been especially impressive. Lawrence has completed 69 percent of his passes with an 11:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has given what was a sluggish at times offense a shot in the arm.
Biggest Surprise: Pass Defense vs. Texas A&M
With four potential first-round draft picks up front and a solid group of defenders behind them, the Clemson defense was supposed to suffocate every offense they faced. So it was shocking when Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond — who at the time was considered the better runner of the two A&M quarterbacks but the less effective passer — threw for 430 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers. Late in the game, when it mattered most, Mond was spectacular, completing 11 of 17 for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. That type of production versus this Clemson D was a complete surprise.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. More Trevor Lawrence
He’s been outstanding, but the true freshman should only get better and he will have some bigger stages on which to perform. It will also be interesting to see the rapport he continues to develop with Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and the other young receivers that he will be teamed with for the next few years.
2. Pass coverage
Clemson faced three option teams in the first half of the year, making the pass defense less important over the first six games. But as mentioned, Texas A&M had major success throwing the ball on the Tigers and Syracuse did as well in their near upset. It seems that the way to beat the Tigers is through the air and with NC State’s Ryan Finley, Florida State’s Deondre Francois, Duke’s Daniel Jones, and South Carolina’s Jake Bentley on the second-half schedule, the pass defense will be tested on multiple occasions. While the front will undoubtedly supply pressure; it's up to the secondary to provide adequate coverage.
3. Kicking game
It has not come into play as of yet, but kicker Greg Huegel and punter Will Spiers can be better. Huegel is just 5-for-8 on field goal attempts and though two of his misses have been from 47 yards, he hasn’t looked as reliable as the pre-injury Huegel. Spiers has dropped nine punts inside the 20-yard line, but he’s averaging less than 40 yards per kick. As the games get more important, this is an aspect of the game that head coach Dabo Swinney would like to see improve.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 20 NC State
The Wolfpack will come to Death Valley ranked in the top 20 and sporting an undefeated 5-0 record. Finley leads the ACC with 324 passing yards per game and he has dangerous targets in Kelvin Harmon, Jakobi Meyers, Thayer Thomas and Emeka Emezie. The Pack also features a solid run defense that could be a challenge for Travis Etienne and the other Clemson backs. Hurricane Florence wiped out the Wolfpack’s game versus West Virginia, so the early-season schedule has not been that difficult. But Dave Doeren’s team always gives Clemson fits.
2. Nov. 10 at Boston College
The Eagles sit at 5-2 after defeating struggling Louisville 38-20. But star running back AJ Dillon missed that game with an ankle injury that he suffered against NC State. The expectation is that the sophomore will return soon and if he is back to 100 percent, Clemson’s trip to chilly Chestnut Hill in November could be tricky.
3. Nov. 17 Duke
In what will be Clemson’s last ACC regular-season game of the year, Duke could come to town as a ranked team. The Blue Devils are 5-1 following their win over Georgia Tech and quarterback Daniel Jones has returned from his broken clavicle. The Devils also are third in the ACC in scoring defense, giving up less than 18 points per game.
4.Nov. 24 South Carolina
So the Gamecocks are just 3-3. Quarterback Jake Bentley has not been as productive as Gamecocks fans would like him to be. Clemson has beaten South Carolina by a combined 90-17 over the past two years. And this one is at Clemson. Still, this is a rivalry game and that ramps up the intensity on both sides.
5. Oct. 27 at Florida State
Obviously, this is not a good Florida State team. The 3-3 Seminoles were destroyed by both Syracuse and Virginia Tech and blew a big second-half lead to Miami. Their biggest issue is once again along the offensive line and that is a major problem when facing the Clemson defensive line.
6. Nov. 3 Louisville
As bad as things are at Florida State, the Seminoles beat Louisville. The Cardinals have lost four in a row and their only victories this year have come against FCS opponent Indiana State and a Western Kentucky team that is 1-5. Louisville is last in the conference in both total and scoring offense while ranking 12th in total and scoring defense. That’s a bad combination.
— 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.