I know everyone is as excited as I am to see the 2018 season get started in what could be another historic season for the Clemson Tigers. Clemson comes in ranked either #2 or #1 in every poll I’ve seen released, so improving or matching that number will mean a great year was had. This seemed like a pipe dream for folks who were around from 1992 to 2010, but Dabo Swinney has built an elite program which should compete for championships every year for the foreseeable future. Still, the large shadow of Alabama continues to loom over college football and remains the true final hurdle for Swinney and the Tiger program to conquer college football. Many fans have focused on the quarterback position and what will transpire between incumbent starter Kelly Bryant and wunderkind freshman Trevor Lawrence. Fans will get their first look at Bryant 2.0 and TL in a live game and the discussion should only grow from what happens.
Truth is, this is a more talented team across the board from the 2015 runner up and 2016 champion, but those teams had the transcendent Deshaun Watson to make up any ground that needed making up. Alabama might be the only program who can challenge for the title without a difference maker at the QB position, and even they had to make a switch to beat UGA last year. Clemson will need clutch QB play at some point this year to win it all, but barring injuries all the other pieces are in place. Swinney has raved about the QB play as a whole during the fall, and more often than not his supposed hyperbole has been proven fact. Truly elevated QB play on this team will most certainly lead to a fourth straight playoff and third championship game in four years.
Furman offense vs. Clemson defense: Long live the Power Rangers! I know fans will savor having this elite group around for one more season, especially when many of us braced for losing two or three of the group to the NFL after last season. The Paladins are an FCS school and the gap you see in levels in more apparent across the DL and OL than anywhere else. Furman’s OL averages around 285 pounds, but their offense utilizes a good bit of triple option where undersized linemen can be effective. The Paladins finished 2nd in the Southern Conference last year and lost in the second round of the playoffs to Wofford. They are the preseason #2 heading into this season and are looking to return to the level where they were competing for FCS (then Division 1AA) titles. However, we all know they should not be able to compete at all with a team like Clemson and this game should be put to bed in the first half. The Paladins will be breaking in a new starting QB (either Harris Roberts or JeMar Lincoln) and I’m sure both of those guys will get a chance to deal with Brent Venables’ defense. I don’t envy them at all.
While Furman will use some triple option football, they are a more balanced attack than pure option teams you see like GT and Wofford and Navy. They finished 2017 with 2,517 yards passing and 2936 yards rushing. I was at the Kent State game last year and it was pretty boring to see them just try to run it on every single play, so hopefully the Paladins will give our secondary some chances to show where they are. Guys to watch are running backs Dirks and Morehead who were second and third on the team in rushing last season. Dirks is the power back and Morehead is more of the speed/slasher back.
On the outside, top target Thomas Gordon returns from a 39 catch 717 yard season. Furman will show formations similar to GT’s base double wing back look but also use some shotgun with split backs and three wideouts. Watching their playoff win over Elon from last year, Furman would periodically shift formations pre-snap which pure option teams rarely do. They have a little shotgun/pure dropback game in their offense but the vast majority is built on triple option/read option and play action off those options from multiple formations. Eye candy galore so the defense will need to be disciplined.
I’ll be paying close attention to many of the talented younger players who should get a nice bit of action in this game. Is Albert Huggins really ready to be a true force as the de facto 5th DL starter? How will Isaiah Simmons perform in his first major action at SAM? Will Xavier Thomas destroy someone? I’m eager to see the young freshman corners get some action because they need to get as much experience as possible.
Clemson offense vs. Furman defense: Furman employs a 4-2-5 base defense in a similar fashion to what the Charlie Strong defenses at USCjr (1999-2002) used to do. They even have a “Spur” safety/linebacker hybrid like those teams did. Furman was one of the best in FCS at getting to the quarterback last year posting over 30 sacks as a team, so the Tiger OL could be tested a little more than you might think in a game like this. As mentioned in the introduction, all eyes will be on the quarterback play when Kelly Bryant starts and when Trevor Lawrence gets his first action.
I hope there isn’t a clamoring for Bryant to struggle from the folks in the stands, though I know Lawrence will get a huge ovation when he comes in. For me, the best case scenario is Bryant is very good and Lawrence is able to gain experience as the season goes in order to be ready in the case Bryant is banged up or just has a rough day at the office. Kelly’s last two games in front of crowds (Alabama and the Spring Game) were struggles, so I know he is ready to put his best foot forward and justify the praise he has received in the offseason.
I expect the Clemson run game to be devastating this year with a veteran OL and a stable of dangerous running backs to go with either Bryant or Lawrence. Clemson should be more physical on the outside and at tight end compared to last year as well, considering the best blocking TE Garrett Williams is back and the smaller 9, 5, 2 combination of Cain, Renfrow, and Ray-Ray are replaced by Higgins, Renfrow, and Rodgers.
Real blocking from the TE position will go a long way to kicking this offense into overdrive after a forgettable season from last year’s crew of Richard, Greenlee, and Cannon Smith. Rodgers offers a much more physical presence at the 2, while the trio of Higgins, Overton, and Justyn Ross are all much bigger than the departed Deon Cain. We saw how much Mike Williams was able to abuse single coverage in 2016 when teams had to bring a safety down to help on Watson and Wayne Gallman in the run game, and I expect to see a lot more of that type of action this season. It will be important for Bryant (and Lawrence or Brice) to work the middle better than last year when teams like Alabama sent a safety over the top on Cain and just manned up on the other WRs. Renfrow was beating it more often than not, but late decision making and/or blocking mistakes derailed what could have been some pivotal plays in New Orleans. The good news is we won’t be seeing that Alabama defense and there should be plenty of room to operate.
The game plan will likely resemble what we saw last year against Kent State with Auburn looming the next week. We’ll see a heavy dose of the base run game (inside zone, power, zone read), WR screens, and enough play action deep shots to send a message about bringing those safeties down tight. There was a lot of talk about tempo and a more veteran offense with a returning starter should be a lot better in that regard compared to last season. It is really all about that first first down since Chad Morris came to Clemson and put in the HUNH offense. As long as the Tigers are able to move the sticks and get the tempo going, all should be well offensively. I expect a vastly improved screen game this year as well after a disappointing 2017 for that part of the offense. I know the comments on the board point to Tiger transfer Amir Trapp lining up at corner for the Paladins, but a game like this doesn’t require Clemson having to tailor a gameplan to attacking one player on the field. This isn’t going after Ohio State with Sammy Watkins or LSU with Nuk Hopkins where we had to exploit a certain matchup to win.
Special Teams: I’m longing for improvement in this area, especially when it played a major part of the loss in the Sugar Bowl. Clemson’s poor kick returning and punting prevented the Tigers from shifting the field position and it was as big a factor for me as the issues in blocking and QB play. There will always be a game or two when your punter is going to matter and the return game is going to matter. There were glimpses of improvements, namely with Ray-Ray in the punt return game, but the Tigers still underwhelmed in this phase as a whole. 2009 seems a long time ago now when special teams were a real weapon for that team. B.T. Potter should eliminate kick returns, Huegel is back to hopefully solidify the placekicking, and one would hope Carson Spiers will be vastly improved in his second year as the punter. Lord knows how good this team will be if special teams really improves.
Overall: I’m just excited for a real game from the Tigers and getting college football going again. Clemson should win this game easily, of course, so it really comes down to trying to be sharp and not just winning because of better players. The other thing is coming out healthy, so the sooner key starters like Mullen, Terrell, Wallace, Hyatt, and Muse are getting to watch the better.
Clemson 50 Furman 10