I’ve wanted to write a post to put together all my thoughts about the upcoming season in one place. Let’s start with a season overview.
Who else is going to miss not having Christian Wilkins streaking down the sideline after a TD to congratulate/almost injure whoever scored?
Never before have the Clemson Tigers had such high expectations headed into a season.
Wait...is that really true? Ford had some teams with high expectations, but not to this level coming off a national championship (think 84 and 89). Hatfield was supposed to win a lot—and then did not. The only time comparable is 2016. In fact, 2016 is very instructive for this upcoming season. Clemson started the season barely beating Auburn (19-13) and then sputtered against Troy (30-24). Wild were thrown against Louisville and NC State, and Deshaun Watson was frustrated with his performance (the early season interceptions ultimately cost him the Heisman) and even apologized to the media. The team finally lost to Pitt before kicking it into high gear and winning the title.
It was tough sledding for an offense that was supposed to blow everyone out of the water.
What happened? After Clemson climbed to the championship game and played Bama to the wire, even leading in the 4th quarter, they became the hunted and every team and defensive coordinator picked apart the offense and its tendencies. They scouted Watson and took advantage of mistakes.
With a young defense that will need time to mature, Clemson needs the offense to be humming by the second and third game of the season. Trevor Lawrence needs to be humming.
Luckily Clemson has some advantages over the 2016 team. They have an improved, veteran offensive line and TL’s golden arm, which makes it so that defenses have to cover the entire field every single play. I’ll write more below, but the season really does rest on Lawrence’s capable shoulders and he should win the Heisman (making my prediction after his Junior year of high school—that he would win the Heisman and multiple national titles—come true).
Clemson should finish the season 12-0. They should repeat as national champions. That, Clemson fans, is unprecedented.
Season Outlook (I’m spending more time on GT and A&M, then limiting my words...edit: whoops that didn’t work...)
The rambling wreck comes to Clemson for Gameday. Tech is performing a major overhaul with new Coach Geoff Collins. Collins is going to turn GT around sooner than later, but it is a tall order for the offensive line and a passing game that hasn’t existed for many years. Does Collins mix in some triple option concepts or completely move to a spread? Expect a fair number of trick plays, especially special teams fakes. Collins loves to use those to try and grab some easy first downs.
Since this is the first game of the year it is always really difficult for any team because they don’t have film to work with or personnel to key in on and this is really true with a brand new coach changing systems entirely. Expect a bit of sloppy play on defense as GT throws the kitchen sink at Clemson. The talent differential should be way too much, however. Tech did get a boost from the NCAA waiver for Myles Sims who will be Tech’s best DB from the jump. Unfortunately, they didn’t get a waiver for Antonneous Clayton who Clemson once recruited before he decided to go to Florida. He would’ve been GT’s best defensive lineman.
An underrated storyline for this season (and beyond) is what the lack of a triple option team does for offseason preparation. Brent Venables doesn’t need to spend entire portions of the offseason constantly preparing for GT. He gets more time to drill down on spread concepts. Does this impact the toughness and tackling of the team who needed to constantly learn assignment football or does it help the team overall with more preparation for the spread? Chad Smith and Skalski slimmed down a bit, along with other LBs. Does that coincide with not having to play the triple option?
This is the toughest test on the schedule. Playing your toughest team at the beginning of the year can be good and bad. If you lose, you have plenty of time to rebound, especially when you have money in the bank after Clemson beat down the SEC champs last year. But preparing for any opponent in the first or second game of the year is tough. A&M isn’t going to show anything against Texas State.
Jimbo has historically given Clemson and Brent Venables fits. Jimbo’s offense stresses a secondary with a variety of formations and he is an underrated play caller (remember how he used EJ Manuel in an series of option calls to beat Clemson in Tally...ughh). They have talent at A&M and their offensive line “held” up against our defensive line much of last year (an offensive line that was a weakness on offense much of the season). Granted, Clemson was up by three touchdowns at one point and had multiple balls slip through DB hands that should’ve been interceptions, but Clemson needed a questionable ball out of the back of the endzone call to help secure the victory.
Clemson also didn’t have a fully operational Trevor Lawrence.
A&M is retooling on the defensive line, but still has talent with Madubuike. The secondary will be stressed with a familiar name at Safety for Clemson fans, multiple time near commit Leon O’Neal. They replace two departed LBs to graduation. On offense, Jimbo is going to start true freshman Kenyon Green who should help stabilize the offense line. The offense will revolve around Kellen Mond, yet again. A&M has a deep, talented group of WRs who surprised our secondary last year on a wet field. Ausbon, Buckley, Davis and Rogers will be the most talented WRs Clemson plays in the regular season. Starting RB is Jashaun Corbin who should be decent, but not as explosive as Trayveon Williams was last season.
Jimbo really likes to use his TE’s as weapons, but true freshman 5* Cupp went down with an injury. Jimbo will use Beal and possibly Wydermeyer in two TE sets, but it won’t be as intimidating as last year or before Cupp went down to injury.
Win and survive.
Legit trap game. Coming off of A&M this won’t be an easy, but it really isn’t a ‘trap’ game because Syracuse is becoming Clemson’s stiffest competition in the Atlantic. Dino Babers is the best coach not named Dabo in the ACC (can someone please hire him away!).
On the road, in a really HOT dome that has been renovated and a fan base believing they can beat Clemson—it might actually be loud this year! The game largely revolves around the performance of new Soph QB Tommy DeVito. Cuse lost some major skill pieces from last year’s roster and the Oline is still a question mark. Babers has used tempo and quality QB play to beat the Clemson defense for a couple years now. The defense has done just enough to stymie our offense. Cuse lost two of their starting LB’s from last season. Ryan Gutherie played extremely well against Clemson and will be tough to replace in the middle of the defense. The secondary is deep and one of the more talented position groups for Syracuse led by tall and long CB Melifonwu.
Clemson will need to play their best game on the road.
Clemson wanted Sam Howell as its QB take last year and he was an absolute steal for Mack Brown from Florida State. He is being given the reigns from the jump. This game is on the road in an environment that isn’t very hostile. But UNC has more talent on the roster than you think. Fedora imploded largely due to a string of injuries and poor QB play. He had recruited a decent amount of talent and wasn’t that far removed from an appearance in the Coastal champs game.
Phil Longo was brought in, previously the OC at Ole Miss, and his pass happy scheme should fit what the previous regime under Fedora had installed. They have some decent Olineman like mammoth Tackle Charlie Heck. The question is whether a consistent ground game can be established. On defense there isn’t nearly the amount of talent but Mack Brown went and hired DC Jay Bateman from Army. Bateman is incredibly unpredictable and innovative. He took rubbish levels of recruiting talent and made Army’s defenses really good. Home run hire, but he has next to nothing to work with. Myles Dorn is decent in the secondary. Not much talent on the defensive line. The defense is a complete rebuild but Bateman’s scheming could keep them in games. Should be an interesting first half that turns into a blowout for Clemson (we will learn a lot about UNC against UofSC).
All about new OC Kendal Briles and new Oline Coach Randy Clements (who were both were on campus during the unfolding of the Baylor sexual assault scandal and have defended Art Briles and I can’t believe this isn’t a bigger offseason story, but Dabo is the evil devil of college football). As far as on the field coaching, Briles and Clements are some of the best in the business.
I have watched a ridiculous amount of FSU practice footage to see what was going on at FSU. They were one of the worst teams last year on offense for a reason. Taggart has taken a back seat to coaching on the field now. It is clear that he had no clue what he was doing last season. He isn’t an offensive guru and their practices have evolved, even during Fall camp, as Briles and Clements have been more involved. The players started the camp looking like the loafing group from last year and ended in a decent spot, especially on offense.
Look—FSU has a lot of talent still on the roster. Every year under Taggart that talent level is going to drop, but they still have enough right now to right the ship and regain their elite footing. This is a crucial year and Briles was the most important hire in the probably the ACC. The offensive line is still garbage (and this is where Jimbo deserves some heat for not recruiting well enough but everywhere else they have talent), but Briles is going to use real tempo in a spread system to minimize the Oline deficiencies much the same way Chad Morris did early in his tenure at Clemson. FSU brought in some grad transfers and true freshman Dontae Lucas will start. The group looks much better than they did at the beginning of camp. Clements just keeps drilling fundamentals.
James Blackmon is going to start at QB. He is still rail thin and not always the most accurate passer, but he has the arm talent. Akers is still a talented RB paired with Laborn back from a knee injury last year and FSU has a quality collection of WR talent, especially Terry, Matthews and Gavin (when he catches the ball). Look for some younger WR’s to step up like Helton and Harrison as Briles will play a good number of skill players if the offense gets humming.
The defense still has a bunch of talent, but it is decreasing. Gone are Christmas and Burns from the defensive line. Wisely FSU is switching to a 3-4 defense. They are going to highlight Marvin Wilson and Corey Durden on the inside and move Robinson and Kaindoh to stand-up LB roles. The pass rush from the defensive end spot without Burns didn’t exist last year so this makes a lot of sense. LB play is still suspect, but Lars-Woodbey is one of the more talented players on the roster.
The secondary has a lot of talent, but hasn’t been able to play assignment football. On paper this group should be crazy elite. Levonta Taylor is moving from corner to Strong Safety and Nasirildeen plays the other Safety spot (someone I was high on during his recruitment). Pair those two with Samuels and Samuel and you have lots of recruiting stars.
Great hire in Satterfield. Should help the team turn around quicker than people expect. Not this season.
Think about Fun.
Still the AJ Dillon show. They need QB Anthony Brown to take the next step and rebound from the injury caused by Christian Wilkins landing on him. They return Scott Loeffler as OC—wait what—someone hired him as their head coach?? Bowling Green?? Wut? OK. OC Mike Bajakian takes over who looks...
excit exactly the same.
On defense this BC team gave Clemson fits. The Oline couldn’t handle Zach Allen (looking at you Anchrum) and the secondary was able to hang with our WR’s. Luckily the entire starting secondary are gone—yep, two starting corners (Cheevers and Torres) and two starting safeties. Allen is gone as well, along with DT Ray and leading tackler LB Strachan. That is a serious rebuild.
You know what it is...
On the road toward the end of the season—this looks like a decent trap game. Clemson hasn’t played particularly well in Raleigh, NC and Dave Doeren is just itching to finally beat Clemson.
But Ryan Finley is gone. OC Eli Drinkwitz left to become the head coach at App State. WR talents Harmon and Meyers are gone. Marginal RB Gallaspy is gone and quality Olineman in Jones, Prescod, and top Center Bradbury. Dave D promoted his OC’s from on the staff to do the Clemson co-coordinator thing.
The braintrust has named Matt McKay at the starting QB and the season revolves around him. RB Ricky Person is excellent and State will likely rely on him early and often in the season. Emeka Emezie returns at WR, but I am really interested in Tabari Hines coming in as a grad transfer. He was at Wake back in 2017 where he was pretty explosive and then went to Oregon, but has transferred back to the ACC. Some good Olineman return in Witt and Sculthorpe, but it won’t be as good as last season.
On defense they will miss LB Pratt who was all over the field. Unfortunately, LB Payton Wilson is now healthy after recovering from an ACL injury. You may remember this was the LB I really wanted Clemson to aggressively pursue, but we slow played because of numbers (he initially committed to UNC and then de-committed and went to State). He will be good for State. Murchison is the most talented Dlineman with some nice pieces like Alim McNeill and incoming freshman Joshua Harris. With a retooling offense and a defense that shouldn’t be better than last year, I can’t see Clemson falling for the trap.
I think Wake is actually going to surprise a lot of people this season. Jamie Newman was named the starting QB and he is a great talent at Wake. Sam Hartman started much of last year and was up and down, but also talented. Gone are interior brawler RB Cade Carney and one of the more talented players in the league (although often injured) WR Greg Dortch. They do return tall outside WR Scotty Washington as the deep ball threat while trying to run insane tempo. It can work, but when it fails—it can be spectacular. Not having Carney to fall forward for positive yards doesn’t help. DE Carlos Basham is probably the best player on Wake’s defense.
I’m not saying Wake will win or anything close, but probably not the embarrassment it was last year. Clawson is a really talented coach that Wake is lucky to enjoy.
U OF SOUTH CAROLINA
Luckily for Clemson Jake Bentley returns at QB (PS. Hilinski is the best QB on the roster). The fightin’ Gamecocks have talent at WR with Edwards and particularly Shi Smith, but will miss the big play ability and one time Heisman candidacy of Deebo Samuel. THERE IS A CROWDED BACKFIELD FULL OF SENIORS. Dowdle will split carries with Feaster and Mon Denson. Why would you go to a situation with two other seniors? Supposedly they are going to throw a lot to the RBs.
The Oline has Hutcherson and Wonnum as good Tackles who gave our dline some trouble last year. Stanley moves to guard from center and Douglas and Gwyn (who I really wanted..uggh) are in the other guard spot. Redshirt Freshman Center Hank ‘the hands of fate’ Manos is going to be a liability.
On defense they have an interesting collection of players. Kinlaw is the standout Dlineman and incoming freshman Zacch Pickens NOW AT DT combines with Wonnum, Johnson, and Sterling and Sandidge who have all underperformed their potentials to date. They are hoping to find some pass rush from players like Enagbare. At corner Horn and Mukuamu are good, but the rest of the secondary is a mishmash. Jamyest Williams is sticking at Safety with Ibe and RJ Roderick will play a good bit. Not ideal.
At LB the emergence of Ernest Jones at MLB has helped. TJ Brunson now gets to play the other LB position, which will help him. But really they are all going to be awful and lose a bunch and I can’t stand them all... :) Watch out for batteries Clemson players...
I will write a second preview (which will no longer be a preview, but yeah...ran out of time) in the wake of the GT game.
But for now I am watching:
- How Clemson defends the run. Tyler Davis is really the starter right now and is pushing Jordan Williams who needs to be a bit more consistent. Ruke ended camp ahead of ET and Johnson for the 5th/6th DT spot. Does he see the field or does the staff try to roll with 4 and Jefferies to save the eligibility of those players.
- XT also needs to play sound, assignment football all the time. Foster, Rudolph, and XT are solid but need to get to the next level in defending the run.
- How does Chad Smith handle the starting job? We know he can play, but being the starter is another animal. What does the depth look like at LB and will Maguire and Patterson see the field. Can we trust Venables or Spector to play a good bit.
- Related—Watch out for Mike Jones Jr. in the Nickel/SAM in certain packages and with LB depth.
- How does DK look as a starter? How much do Jones and Booth see the field?
- Can BT Potter kick it on the Hill? Potter fully taking the FG kicking spot is one of the underrated storylines of the season. He should be great, but need to see it with the lights on.
- Can someone improve our punting??
- Will Cornell Powell finally breakout? YES!
- Rencher is the third guy at RB. Will Dukes be used as the fourth back? Will Rencher make me remember CJ Davidson or the awful DJ Howard fumble at GT?
- How much do we use Chalk? Price is the second TE out of the gate. Does our blocking suffer without Garrett Williams?
- Does Overton dominate in the slot like he has during practice?
- How long do we need to wait for a 2021 commit? (answer: not long...)