Christian Wilkins is part of the Tigers' NFL-caliber defensive line
Based purely on recent history, Clemson has to be considered one of the favorites to reach the College Football Playoff come late December. There are the two title game appearances with a championship in 2016 and last year, in what was a bit of a rebuilding season, the Tigers still won the ACC and made the four-team tournament.
This fall, Clemson not only has history going its way, the Tigers also are rich with talent in just about every position grouping. As a result, along with Alabama, Clemson is as close to a lock as you can get when it comes to picking tournament participants. There are some weak spots, though not nearly as many as just about every other team in America.
Here are three reasons why Clemson will make their fourth consecutive playoff appearance and three issues that could potentially keep the Tigers out.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
In the four years of the playoff, Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State are a combined 10-5 in the tournament. All five of the losses have come to one of the other Big Three teams. Clearly, Dabo Swinney has put himself in good company by competing with -- and holding his own against -- Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Swinney has built the program to the point where, like the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes, championship runs are expected. Once again, the staff is intact and the pieces are in place for an opportunity to wear the crown at season's end.
2. Defensive front seven
Clemson has three or four defensive linemen that could get selected in the first few rounds of the NFL draft when their time comes. And those are guys that are currently in reserve roles. If all goes according to plan, the starting four will all hear their names called by Roger Goddell on the first night of the 2019 selection showcase. But it is more than just Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Linebackers Kendall Joseph, Tre Lamar and the blossoming Isaiah Simmons are game-wreckers that will clean up what the front line misses. This is as good as a front seven can get on the college level.
3. Skill position talent
It’s doubtful that any Clemson back will have a 1,500-yard season like Wayne Gallman had in 2015. But the reason isn’t lack of talent; it’s too much talent. Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster each carried the ball 107 times last year where Gallman ran 282 times three seasons ago. Throw in Adam Choice and the running ability of quarterback Kelly Bryant and you have an extremely deep rushing attack. Out wide, the Tigers lose Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain, but their departures open the door for Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and other young receivers. All of Clemson’s weapons have one thing in common: they can all really, really run.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Offensive line
Left tackle Mitch Hyatt’s decision to return was huge for Clemson’s title chances. But offensive line is still the biggest question mark for Clemson entering the season. Many teams struggle with Alabama’s defensive front, but the Tigers' blockers were manhandled in the title game and now they must replace both guards. Actually, last year’s starting right tackle -- Sean Pollard -- is moving inside to guard so there are changes occurring up and down the line.
2. Downfield passing
Kelly Bryant was very effective last season and was a sensational leader for the Tigers. But despite having some dangerous threats at the receiver position, the junior quarterback rarely was able to stretch the field. His 7.04 yards per attempt ranked 70th in the nation in 2017. If Bryant is the signal-caller for the entirety of the season, that will again be a concern. Of course, there are no guarantees he will be the main man all year with true freshman Trevor Lawrence hovering around on the depth chart.
3. Secondary depth
Trayvon Mullen, A.J. Terrell, and Mark Fields are solid. The questions arise should one or more of those corners go down with an injury as one of two freshmen would probably be next in line. The same issues persist at safety. K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse fill those spots very well, but they both need to stay on the field and Muse, despite playing in 13 games, battled a hand injury last fall.
Even during this magical run, Clemson has slipped up on occasion, dropping games to Pittsburgh and Syracuse that should have been easy wins. Plus, injuries at key spots could make things even more challenging. But in reality, this team is loaded. The Tigers' defensive front is off the charts and they have electric athletes on both sides of the ball. Plus, the schedule is very favorable. Texas A&M and Florida State will be adjusting to totally new systems, South Carolina comes to Death Valley, and the Tigers avoid Miami in the crossover games. Even if they misstep once along the way, Clemson will again be part of the playoff picture.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 2
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 12-1 (7-1 ACC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 11
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 11
-- 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.