Clemson blew out the Gamecocks in spectacular fashion the last time they hosted an opponent in Death Valley. They then left the state for three games, going 3-0 against Virginia Tech, Ohio State, and Alabama to claim the National Championship. On Saturday, the champs are back!
In week 1, they get Kent State from the MAC. Aside from being known for holding an infamous Vietnam War protest, and sending a roommate to my study abroad trip who refused to chip in for (or use) toilet paper, Kent State is very bad at football. They didn’t show up in the top 100 of rivals team recruiting rankings in any the last five years. They ranked outside the top 100 in the S&P+ rankings last year ago when they finished just 3-9. Sadly, it wasn’t merely a down year. They haven’t won the MAC since 1972. And you thought Clemson’s 1991-2011 ACC title drought was bad!
In our season preview we gave Clemson a 99% chance to win this game and a little further analysis validates this projection. This game is designated as the “National Championship Celebration” game, so we follow their lead with our blue chip analysis article. Rather than compare Clemson’s recruited talent to Kent State, we will compare the recruited talent on Clemson’s depth chart, which was released on Monday, to the depth chart released just before 2016 National Championship game.
Before we delve in, the usual explanation and caveat:
We've divided the offense and the defense each into three portions. On offense, the starting QB comprises one-third of the rating, the heaviest weight for any single player. The five starting offensive linemen comprise another third, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) comprise one-third. They are displayed separately as well as as part of the overall offense average.
Similarly on defense, the two-deep along the D-line, at linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.
We acknowledge there are some players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) as well as those who under-perform their star ratings. Nevertheless, recruited talent is strongly correlated with wins on the field. In 2016, this analysis revealed a major talent deficit for Louisville along the O-line. Despite solid performance from their O-line to that point, we cited this as reason for optimism and Clemson validated that optimism by winning at the line of scrimmage.
For 2017, we have switched from using the 24/7 Composite to using Rivals star ratings. Among other reasons, the 24/7 Composite was plagued with missing data and had fewer differences between players.
Now, on to the analysis. We start with the offense:
The weighted average for the offense drops from a 4.10 to a 3.70, but this is almost entirely due to the QB position. Clemson replaces a five-star junior with playoff experience with a four-star junior who had never played meaningful snaps. This is an obvious step back. Fortunately, talent at other positions is extremely high so Kelly Bryant doesn’t have to be Deshaun Watson.
The offensive line looks largely unchanged. Tremayne Anchrum leapfrogged Sean Pollard for week 1 (they’re listed as “OR,” but Anchrum is slated to get the first snap). It’s a downgrade from a four-star to a three-star, but more importantly it’s an positive indicator of great depth at tackle! Guillermo is replaced by Justin Falcinelli, which is something to watch in week one. Both were three-star recruits.
The skill position players are the most interesting here. The Tigers lose Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Jordan Leggett, and Wayne Gallman to the NFL, but the recruited talent in their two-deep remains steady at a 3.70. Adding the four-star talents of Cornell Powell and Tavien Feaster to the calculus helps. If four-star Garrett Williams was on the depth chart instead of two-star DJ Greenlee, this would be even more favorable.
They lose experience and proven results, but to reload this quickly is a testament to Clemson’s strength as a program. This offense may take some time to really start humming, but it’s encouraging that there is not a drop-off in overall talent-level aside from losing all-world Deshaun Watson. Couple this with the long-term stability of newly extended Dabo Swinney at the helm and you have to feel good about the Tigers’ long-term prospects.
Now on to the defense:
The overall recruited talent on the defense’s two-deep remains at 3.50. The biggest drop from 2016’s defense is on the line and in particular among the backups. Our charts reflect the replacement of four-star tackles Scott Pagano and Carlos Watkins with DT Jabril Robinson and DE Logan Rudolph (with Wilkins moving back to DT). Fortunately, we’re hearing positive things about Robinson from Fall Camp.
Depth at DE is a concern though. Xavier Kelly isn’t “where we need him to be” yet and Logan Rudolph will be playing through injury this season. Losing Richard Yeargin hurts a lot in this regard. While concerns with the depth are legitimate, the starting four on the D-line may be the best in the country. We just need them to stay healthy.
Not much changes at linebacker. Most notably four-star Ben Boulware is replaced by three-star James Sklaski. Former five-star Shaq Smith suffered a high-ankle sprain in camp, which has prevented him from readying himself to contribute at WLB. Should he break the two-deep later in the season, you’ll see an abrupt jump in our charts.
The secondary is the only position grouping where we see the Tigers best last year’s squad. Four-star Trayvon Mullen is a big reason for this boost. He is the back-up to Ryan Carter at the boundary CB position. With Carter also listed as the starter at nickel, Mullen should get plenty of playing time. Another factor is three-star Isaiah Simmons appears on this year’s two-deep in lieu of two-star Denzel Johnson.
Overall, these charts should be encouraging - both in the long-term and the short-term. The talent at the skill positions remains strong despite losing so many superstars. QB is obviously the question mark, but Kelly Bryant is being put in a good position to succeed. Reports from Fall camp have been positive, he is a four-star talent, and is now a junior. There’s reason for optimism.
On defense, the depth along the D-line is a concern, but the starting four are elite. Linebacker should be a position of strength, even after losing the ultimate leader in Ben Boulware. Tre Lamar appears ready to fill the void as the lone new starter at LB. The secondary lacks star power, but is loaded with depth. While they may struggle a bit with tall receivers, they should be able to rotate fresh bodies in and keep up with any receiving corps on the schedule.
The talent is there to justify the #5 national ranking. Swinney’s bunch has a chance to do something that hasn’t been done since Ford’s ‘86-’89 teams - win three straight conference titles. The journey begins again, this Saturday.