All hail the reigning kings of college football! All hail the Clemson Tigers! The time has come for the Tigers to embark on the daunting journey to attempt the rare repeat of becoming the National Champions. The challenge is steep considering Clemson is replacing its greatest player ever in DeShaun Watson and a bevy of skill position studs who all reside on NFL rosters at the moment. However, the newly extended Dabo Swinney welcomes any and all reasons to find a chip for the paw clad shoulders (thank God those are back!) of his players. He probably has at least one support staffer whose sole purpose is to find slights, real and perceived, that he can turn into motivation gold. Though the Tigers are respected as a top 5 program, the vast majority of pundits have anointed Florida State as the darlings of 2017. One pundit had the audacity to pick NC State as a playoff team! Now Tiger fans anxiously await seeing the Kelly Bryant piloted offense in a real game situation. The defense should be dominant, but how efficient and comfortable Bryant is (or if he isn’t, Cooper or Johnson) will set the true bar of expectation for this team. ESPN had a very interesting article about replacing GOAT level guys like Watson you can see here. Clemson is banking on the sum of its parts being good enough to weather losing a transcendent player of Watson’s magnitude. The model Alabama has used under Saban is essentially at work now for Clemson: no matter the QB or his surrounding skill, the lines of scrimmage will be the difference. Clemson, especially at full strength, is very good on the lines of scrimmage.
Clemson offense vs. Kent State defense: I know I will be intently watching how the Tigers operate on offense in a truly live environment. Scrimmages are what they are and similarly to NFL preseason games, the lack of a team specific game plan or scheme can lead people to think things are better than they are or worse than they are depending. Now the Tigers will come in with a paired down offensive attack plan and will adjust accordingly after going through its traditional 15-20 play script, rather than working through nearly all the installed offense as they would for scrimmages. The goal for this offense, especially with Bryant at the helm, will be to run at probably a 60/40 or 55/45 ratio. I suspect a version of the Cole Stoudt vs. Oklahoma passing game coupled with Bryant’s electric zone read ability will be on display.
The Tigers should be able to impose their will up front on the Flashes’ 4-2-5 scheme. Kent State gave up well over 200 yards rushing multiple times in 2016, including over 400 in a November loss to Bowling Green, so the Tigers should expect nothing less than 230-300 yards on the ground Saturday. We really haven’t seen the Tigers fearlessly run the quarterback since the latter half of 2015 with Watson, so it will be interesting to see how many carries Bryant will have. Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson are going to get some work as well for the sake of building game experience for guys who have zero at the moment. The goal will be to put this game to bed in the first quarter so the quarterback rotating can be done more freely, but first games can lead to some tricky moments and ugly stretches like what we saw in 2011 when the Tigers struggled for a stretch against Troy on offense. Three quarterbacks and three running backs, maybe four, will see the field as the evaluations continue.
Clemson defense vs. Kent State offense: Kent State is already having to play this game without its head coach (out for medical leave). They are facing the defending champs in Death Valley in the heat of early September. To make matters worse, they are going to try to run the ball a LOT at the best front in the land. The Flashes run primarily out of pistol formations with 2 backs (the second being a TE/Flex type guy vs. a traditional FB). They will mix in some empty formations and feature their quarterback Nick Holley as a dual threat (868 yards passing; 920 yards rushing at 4.7 ypc in 2016). We will see some of the same zone read and jet sweep actions Clemson likes to run, just out of different formations. It’s actually not a bad opener to have before Auburn considering the quarterback run threat and play action game, though Auburn will be doing it with much better personnel.
I would think Coach Venables would love to play this one with the backup DL and LB corps getting a healthy chunk of snaps. Clemson is very, very good on defense but defensive end depth is a cause of concern. The Tigers certainly don’t need Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell working overtime and risking injury before the huge game next week. Kent State really poses very little threat in the passing game beyond what they can get out of play action. Their leading receiver last year was a running back with a mere 28 catches. To put that in perspective, Wayne Gallman had 20 catches last year and was seventh on the team. It will be a similar approach to playing Georgia Tech in regards to pass defense. The defensive front should completely disrupt Kent State’s running game without having to fear the passing game all that much. The Tigers are much more formidable with a safety like Muse coming up vs. Van Smith, who is a capable tackler but smaller. The formula hasn’t changed in that the Tigers will attack, force tackles for loss, and push for as many 3 and outs as they can get.
Special Teams: The Tigers are in much better shape here than coming out of 2015 when the coverage units in particular were terrible. The group is not without some questions as new punter Will Spiers takes over. All I heard from folks who saw scrimmages or a practice is the remaining candidates really struggled, so we need to hope Spiers can get it done. Placekicking is in good hands with the battle tested Greg Huegel, though we are breaking in a new holder in Will Swinney. Special Teams should not be a big factor in a game like this, but I know I’d like to see some explosiveness out of the return units and no glaring mistakes to cause future worry. Biggest question is can Ray Ray McCloud finally put it all together and realize his immense potential as a punt returner?
Overall: Clemson is a 40 point favorite in this game. Kent State is coming off a woeful 3-9 season with only 2 conference wins within the MAC. There should be no question of if Clemson will win but by how much (and how soon liberal substitution can take place). This game is all about experience and getting ready for the real test with Auburn. It will be great to be back in God’s Country, basking in the glow of a national title. The excitement is always there no matter who the first opponent is after the long stretch of the Dark Territory. Be crisp, take care of the ball, stay healthy. Go Tigers.
Clemson 44-Kent State 6