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You're Irreplaceable: Why Clemson is a True Playoff Contender, but Hope Rests Heavy on a Few

Clemson has truly earned the title of playoff contender, but hope for a strong finish rests heavily on the shoulders of a few.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Tigers' win over the Yellow Jackets, Dabo Swinney said - among other things - that his team has "earned" everything they've gotten.

It's true.

The top 3 teams in the AP Poll all entered the season already ranked in the Top 4 (OSU, TCU, Baylor). They haven't lost, so it's hard to move them down, but they haven't beaten anybody of note. Between all three schools the toughest non-conference games that will be played are against Minnesota (a close TCU win) and Virginia Tech (a Labor Day Buckeye win).

Clemson, on the other hand, went on the road for a short-week ESPN Thursday game and beat one of the ACC's better teams (UL). They beat Notre Dame at the line of scrimmage and on the scoreboard, and then pasted their pesky GT rivals. While they were winning, five teams above them lost (Bama, Auburn, Oregon, USC, UGA, ND).

With so many key players departing from the nation's best defense, they were supposed to regress dramatically. They haven't. Instead many first time starters have stepped up and DC Brent Venables is once against leading a premier defense. Meanwhile, the offense may not be as high-flying as in the Boyd years, but it is tougher. They're averaging about a yard more per carry, and are able to run the ball - at least to some extent - even when the opposition knows its coming. Most encouraging though is that this team seems like they've only scratched the surface of their potential and they get better each week.

So the Tigers find themselves in the thick of the College Football Playoff race - not as just some ACC team that doesn't play anybody, but as a legitimate contender. They've won 33 straight games against unranked opponents and I expect that number to be 39 by the end of the regular season. Florida State is always a worry - they're darn good even when they're "down," but there is one other thing that puts my stomach in knots when I start making travel plans for the College Football Playoff. That thing is injuries.

One reason the team has been able to lose so much (stars all across the defense, both offensive tackles, etc.) is because the second team was so good in 2014. It included guys like Shaq Lawson and Ben Boulware for goodness sake! There seems to be a handful of key players that this team simply cannot afford to lose. While I don't mean to scare you under the bed, let's talk about some of these young men who are simply irreplaceable.

Deshaun Watson: This one is obvious because we saw it play out last season. While Ohio State was able to win a National Championship with out Braxton Miller or J.T. Barrett, that's an anomaly. Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire broke his ankle while running the ball between the tackles. I cringe whenever I see Watson run among the hogs. This team may still be above average with Nick Schuessler at QB (they'd likely beat NC State, Syracuse, Wake Forest, and South Carolina), but they're not a playoff teams without Watson.

We saw a little of Kelly Bryant running the ball against Georgia Tech. Continuing to get him experience to build depth is good. Letting him take some of the QB runs away from Watson is also a good thing.

Jayron Kearse: I am not as worried about depth at safety as other positions such as QB, however Jayron Kearse has got to be approaching superstar status. He forced and recovered a fumble against Notre Dame. In the .gif below you can see Kearse completely stuff the GT rushing threat. In addition to being the last layer of defense, Kearse helps a thin front seven in run defense.

Mackensie Alexander: "Tootie" Tankersley has done a tremendous job playing at CB opposite Alexander, but there is a reason opposing QBs aren't throwing to the WRs that Alexander defends. He completely shut down a portion of their offense. If he went down, Adrian Baker or Ryan Carter would have to start opposite Tankersley. They're fine players, but like with Kearse you'd be going from superstar level to not superstar.

Shaq Lawson: It's mighty impressive that Clemson was able to lose so much talent off their defensive line and still be effective. A big part of that is moving Shaq Lawson from the second team to the first team. What that also means is that you don't have a Shaq Lawson behind him. You have RS freshman Richard Yeargin. There's very little depth at DE and losing Lawson would be a crushing blow for the pass rush as Lawson has been a monster at collecting tackles for loss.

Ben Boulware: Bowling Ball Ben is another guy that is playing a huge role in generating a pass rush. Clemson has done a good job of filling in for the major losses of LBs Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, but in moving second team guys to the first team, the depth has become depleted. This became exacerbated at linebacker when LB Korie Rogers gave up football. Three-star freshman Jalen Williams sits behind Ben Boulware on the depth chart. Boulware is absolutely irreplaceable.

Mitch Hyatt: Due to the lack of depth on the offensive line, we all though Hyatt would get some snaps, but when Isaiah Battle left the team we suddenly needed much more than "some snaps." Hyatt has stepped in and done a great job protecting Watson's blind side. Losing both Kalon Davis and Isaiah Battle from the tackle position leaves the position awfully thin. The five star freshman has done yeoman's work and will need to continue to do so.

Wayne Gallman, Dorian O'Daniel, BJ Goodson, Kevin Dodd, Christian Wilkins, and Scott Pagano were also considerations to make this list, but the players chosen in end are more irreplaceable in my view. Admittedly, DJ Reader likely would have made this list if it were done a few months ago, but clearly Wilkins and Pagano have stepped up. Hopefully, nobody else is forced do the same.

Championship runs almost always require some luck, but the Tigers don't need luck to win games or work their way into the top four of the polls, they just need to stay healthy and maintain focus as they take care of business down the stretch of what could be a special season.