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2019 Clemson Tigers Season Preview: What Should We Expect?

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Enjoy this Q&A with Shakin the Southland writers about realistic expectations going into a post-championship season.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

With success comes rising expectations. The Tigers have won two of the last three national championships and posted the greatest season in college football history. It feels like hyperbole to write it, but it’s reality. In past seasons, we’ve polled our writers and some from other sites about win-total expectations for Clemson. This year, since everyone would almost exclusively say 11 or 12 wins, we’re taking a different route. We’ve asked some more detailed questions to three of our writers: Tom Dianora, TenDayContract, and Colby Lanham.

Let’s jump right in:

Ryan: Clemson’s regular season over/under is a lofty 11.5 wins. It’s the highest in college football. At first glance, it seems awfully high, but after thinking through the schedule with a down ACC, predicting an undefeated regular season doesn’t take a leap of faith. Where do you stand on this? Are you taking the over (12-0) or under (1+ regular season losses)? What’s the primary reason for your pick?

TenDayContract: The 11.5 O/U is an incredible show of respect for this program, its consistent excellence, and the dynamic talent level. I personally will stay away from betting this. But, if I’m forced to pick, I’ll take the under. The schedule couldn’t be easier but it’s football and weird things happen. No one saw the Pitt loss coming in 2016, the Syracuse loss in 2017, or the near loss to Syracuse again in 2018. Injuries, turnover luck, and the unpredictability of 18-22 year olds all make me hesitant to bet on ANY team going undefeated. Couple that with seven new defensive starters and I believe there will be one loss this regular season.

TD: I think that as high as this over/under is, it’s perfectly reasonable. It’s just asking us, “Will Clemson lose a game or not?” I would lean in the direction of taking the over, i.e., a 12-0 regular season. Clemson of course did that last year with only two really close games (Texas A&M and Syracuse, which both featured the Tigers not having the star version/any version of Trevor Lawrence for the full four quarters). A bet like this is certainly not one anyone can make with a ton of confidence, as slip-ups, injuries, etc. are all things that happen. But right now, there is no reason to pick against Clemson in any single regular-season game, so that gives the edge to the over for me. That said, I won’t be running (flying?) to the sports books in Vegas to put money on this. (That’s instead saved for silly single-game and prop bets in which I have no other emotional investment.)

Ryan: Let’s say Clemson in fact does suffer a loss this season. What’s more likely: it comes in the first three games (GT, TAMU, @Cuse) or one of the last nine games?

TenDayContract: I think it would come during the first three games for two reasons. First, Texas A&M and Syracuse are the toughest games on the schedule. Second, the team has started slow and built momentum throughout the season in recent years. The offense tends to be fairly vanilla out of the gate and an inexperienced defense could have kinks to work out early. Week 3 at Syracuse following a tough game against the Aggies will put this squad on upset alert.

TD: I agree that a loss is more likely to come in the first three games. Beyond just the fact that their toughest opponent (Texas A&M) comes in the second game right before they have to play two-year-thorn-in-side Syracuse, Clemson tends to start slowly. Their penchant to start slowly in many games last season (Georgia Southern, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Notre Dame, to name a few) was a microcosm of their season, as their two closest games came in the first five before the offense started rolling and they won each of their remaining 10 contests by at least 20 points. I’d expect that any struggles this year would also skew toward coming early in games and in the season.

Colby: Certainly the first three games. Those first three games are always a feeling-out process for everyone new to the rotation or just in knocking off the rust of finally playing against someone. Breaking in a new defensive interior with a good amount of youth is the big story here, especially after the way Mond had his way with the defense in College Station last year. By October is when Clemson always seems to hit its stride. The last couple of years, most of the regular stress has always come in early September games.

Ryan: Trevor Lawrence had a ridiculous 30-4 TD-INT ratio as a true freshman. His full season numbers are impressive, but what can get lost in that is the skills growth he demonstrated throughout the year. The player that took the field in the postseason was leaps and bounds ahead of the one who played against Texas A&M and Georgia Tech early in the season.

At running back, Travis Etienne led the nation in TDs with 24. His 8.1 YPC made him wildly efficient.

Each of these players enters 2019 as one of the top two at their respective positions (Tua Tagovailoa and Jonathan Taylor being the others). How likely is each of them to claim Clemson’s first Heisman trophy?

TenDayContract: Lawrence and Etienne’s talent level is undeniable. I wouldn’t trade either of them for another player in the country. However, I think it’s very unlikely either win the Heisman. They’ll both play well enough to earn a trip to NYC but, due to vote splitting and early exits during blowout wins, neither will bring the Heisman home to Clemson for the first time. Until 2020.

TD: I think Lawrence represents perhaps Clemson’s best chance ever at taking home the Heisman, but it’s also easy to forget that there was a similar feeling around Deshaun Watson coming off his 2015 campaign and otherworldly performance against Alabama in the National Championship Game loss. But a slow start (I’m sensing a theme), a few too many interceptions, and the emergence of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (and Bobby Petrino’s enabling of him to pad his stats by leaving him in late during blowouts) kept the Heisman from DW4’s grasp even though he is the better quarterback.

There is a ton of hype surrounding Lawrence this season, but it’s oftentimes a lesser-discussed name preseason that ends up stealing the show once things get underway (such as Jackson in 2016 and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray last season). The hype could work against Lawrence if he shows even the slightest sign of being human, so I hesitate to say he will actually win it. But I think the odds are pretty strong and that he will be a finalist who is right in the mix at the top. As for Etienne, while I think he will have another big year, I do not see him making it to New York. The main reasons are that Lawrence will get more of the national spotlight, and because the Heisman has become mostly a quarterback award. (This makes former Alabama running back Derrick Henry’s Heisman victory in 2015 even more annoying.)

Colby: The Heisman has pretty much become another quarterback award, thus Lawrence is Clemson’s best shot for it. What will make Lawrence gain even more attention is how he played against Alabama as a freshman. In today’s football media world, any quarterback that beats Alabama is going to suddenly become a star (see: Johnny Manziel). Etienne would need to see similar numbers to last season to be in contention, but given the number of quarterbacks people like, I don’t see it happening. Plus, since coaches monitor his carries to preserve his legs and health, an award like the Heisman Trophy is likely out of reach.

Ryan: Expectations for this WR corps are sky high. Having Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross on the field together is bringing us back to the days of Sammy Watkins and Nuk Hopkins playing together. While the talent is certainly there, replacing Hunter Renfrow will be a challenge. Without a major receiving threat at TE, there’s even more need for a short yardage target. How do the Tigers fill that need in 2019?

TenDayContract: I think moving Justyn Ross to the 2 WR position will help to fill that void in ways similar to Artavis Scott during his time as a Tiger. I’m forecasting around 80 receptions for the sophomore and think he will be Lawrence’s preferred 3rd down target. Get ready to watch him turn a lot of quick completions into long touchdowns.

TD: The duo of Higgins and Ross should alleviate a lot of the issues that would otherwise come about via not having a slot star like Renfrow or a reliable tight end. The lack of a pass-catching threat at TE obviously did not hurt Clemson last year, and I do not expect that it will this season either. Losing 3rd-and-Renfrow hurts—especially after watching him at Clemson for 17 years—but I am actually excited to see what kind of element 6-foot-4 senior Diondre Overton brings to the slot position. While not a traditionally-sized slot receiver, Overton is very talented and, by all accounts, seems to be demonstrating that in camp more than ever before. In any event, they will have options for short-yardage situations between Overton and the versatile Ross. Plus, Amari Rodgers might be back from his torn ACL (suffered in March) sooner than expected, which will provide the Tigers with more versatility.

Colby: I think the slot position becomes the de-facto tight end target. Unless one of the freshman tight ends emerge (which is hard to say given how freshman tight ends usually need that growth period), Clemson will really make use of their riches at receiver. Guys like Cornell Powell (if he can stick on the field) or Diondre Overton will likely see their usage increase. Overton will be especially intriguing in that position, as he’s been one of the receivers I’d be pegging to see more of given his size. Plus, since Clemson cross-trains their receivers, they can line-up all over the field in any position, as we saw with Ross playing in the slot in certain sets.

Ryan: Let’s go off the radar a bit. Put aside the guys who are already on pre-season award watch lists and tell me who your sleeper contributor or breakout player is for 2019.

TenDayContract: There’s names ready to bust out all over the defense but I’ll go with Jamie Skalski. He has underrated athleticism, a nonstop motor, and seems genuinely pissed off at the lack of respect for this year’s linebacker core. I think he ends up 2nd team All-ACC and is the emotional leader of the defense. Honorable mentions go out to Justin Foster and Tyler Davis.

TD: Good question—this eliminates quite a few options since the Tigers have so many players primed to win awards this season. Jamie Skalski is a great pick for the reasons TenDayContract mentioned, but to keep things interesting, I’ll go with someone else: Derion Kendrick. Cornerback Derion Kendrick, that is. It might seem foolish to pick a converted wide receiver who has never played CB before (at least collegiately), but there must be a reason he’s starting opposite A.J. Terrell, getting the nod over Mario Goodrich. Kendrick clearly has done enough to earn the trust of Brent Venables, which is no easy feat. I am excited to see the sophomore leverage his athleticism and ball skills in this position. Kendrick should also maintain a role in the punt and kickoff return games, an area where he can perhaps more tangibly demonstrate his play-making abilities.

Colby: My sleeper is Lyn-J Dixon. He already broke out as the second-leading rusher (well third, as Adam Choice beat him by one-yard) last season with 547 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He also averaged 9.3 yards per carry, which was the highest on the team. I know much of this is boosted from the long runs he had in last year’s 63-3 Wake Forest game, but he showed great speed in the open field and a willingness to pass protect when he was in the game. Dixon is the unquestioned No.2 back, and it will be a blast to take one explosive back off the field for another. If he could do that much damage as the fourth back in the rotation, Dixon could give Clemson an additional 1,000 yard running back.

Ryan: We can’t set expectations at title or bust right? Beating U of SC for the sixth straight time and winning another ACC title has to be at least a mild success, no? When Clemson fans squawked about not winning by wide enough margins, Coach Swinney was understandably annoyed. In that same vein of thought, where should we set our sights for a “successful” season?

TenDayContract: The title or bust mentality is toxic to a program and should never be the expectation. A successful season to me, given the outrageous personnel on this team, would be to win the ACC and crush the souls of Gamecock fans in Williams-Brice on November 30th. That probably puts this team in the playoff and continues the dynastic run the program has been on since 2015.

TD: It’s hard to set the bar so high, as it really only sets up disappointment, but at Clemson, they say, “Best is the standard.” “National title or bust” is probably too extreme, but I think it’s fair to say that a lot of Clemson fans will be disappointed if the team does not get back to the College Football Playoff for the fifth straight season. Going down a notch, Clemson outclasses the ACC and the Gamecocks by quite a lot, so failing to win the conference or failing to beat the Cocks again would both be massively upsetting.

Colby: Setting the bar high is nice, and should always happen, but the “title or bust mentality” isn’t healthy. Winning an ACC Championship and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl is still a great season, and should be the minimum goal. I’ve seen this team at a point where I didn’t think a national championship was possible in my lifetime, let alone two. I came to half-empty spring games and watched us lose to teams like Wake Forest. I don’t take what’s happening for granted. I’m here to enjoy the ride.