The offseason feels much longer when you’re not the champions. As of this writing there are still seven months before the Tigers head to Atlanta to begin the college football season against longtime rival Georgia Tech.
Below are the 10 players from Clemson and beyond that I’m most interested in watching in 2020. This isn’t a top 10 best player list. Instead, it highlights some players in interesting situations, some primed for a breakout, and some that are just plain special to watch. Credit to the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast for discussing the topic and inspiring this article.
10. Spencer Rattler (QB, Oklahoma)
Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts all came to Oklahoma via transfer and all left with at least a berth in the college football playoff and an invitation to the Heisman Ceremony. Now, they’ll try to keep their run going with a non-transfer, the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2019 (Rivals), Spencer Rattler.
Rattler still has to beat out Tanner Mordecai who is one year his senior, but if all goes according to plan, you’ll have the #1 QB from the class after Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields in the system that has consistently produced the best QB and offense - sans LSU and Burrow.
9. Sam Howell (QB, North Carolina)
As we expected, Sam Howell won the starting job at UNC as a true freshman. The highly-touted recruit who spurned FSU finished with 3,841 passing yards, 38 TDs, and 7 INTs. The Tar Heels ended the season with incredible momentum blowing out NCSU 41-10 and then Temple 55-13. After rebounding to a bowl berth last year, can UNC take the next step and win the Coastal? If Howell exhibits growth after a strong freshman year, it is a strong possibility.
8. Bryan Bresee (DT, Clemson)
DT/SDE Bryan Bresee was the #1 overall recruit in the country in the 2020 class (Rivals). The 6’5” 290lbs freshman is already at Clemson as an early enrollee, which makes him a prime candidate for an early impact.
The Tigers’ defense was stout last year, but the defensive line was not as dominant as usual. In 2020, DEs Justin Foster, Xavier Thomas, and KJ Henry all return. DTs Tyler Davis and Nyles Pinckney are also back. Despite that, Bryan Bresee could force his way into major snaps much like Dexter Lawrence did as a freshman. It’ll be interesting to watch the personnel battles on the D-line as Bresse looks to make a impact and Clemson looks to regain dominance on the defensive line.
7. Mac Jones (QB, Alabama)
It’s easy to forget that Alabama won most of their Saban-era titles with a game manager at QB. If feels unthinkable that they’d go from Tagovailoa to Mac Jones, but really it shouldn’t be. With RB Najee Harris returning, Alabama could go back to the old school style that they used up until the second half of the Alabama/Georgia National Title Game.
Mac Brown threw for 14 TDs and 3 INTs last year. He struggled against Auburn (two pick-sixes), but he bounced back in the bowl game vs. Michigan in which he posted 3 TDs, 0 INTs, and 327 passing yards. He was a four-star recruit and the #9 overall player at QB in his class (Rivals). With weapons like speedster WR Jaylen Waddle, it’ll be interesting to see what he can do at the helm.
6. Myles Brennan (QB, LSU)
Myles Brennan has the unenviable role of replacing the player who just had the greatest ever single season by college QB. Not only is Joe Burrow gone, but so are both coordinators, WR Justin Jefferson, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, TE Thaddeus Moss and many of the stars on defense. LSU hosts Texas and Alabama and travels to Florida, Auburn, and Texas A&M. Will they drop back to being a nine-win type team or can they sustain all those losses and again be a playoff contender. If the former, at least they thoroughly enjoyed their victory cigars.
5. D’Eriq King (QB, Miami)
King transferred to Miami this offseason after redshirting his senior season with Houston. He was off to a slow start and the Cougars were going nowhere. Although he wasn’t in danger of losing the starting QB job, he elected to sit out the rest of the season and essentially punt last year. The year prior (2018), King threw for 2,982 yards with 36 TDs and 6 INTs. With the mess Miami had at QB last year, he’s all but guaranteed to win the starting job.
He joins a talented team that disappointed immensely in Coach Diaz’s first year. In fact, they were as unpredictable as Clemson basketball. They beat Virginia, Pittsburgh, FSU, and Louisville, but lost to FIU, Georgia Tech, Duke, and Louisiana Tech. With a schedule that boasts Temple and Michigan State as the toughest non-conference games and avoids both Clemson and Louisville in the ACC, there are no games they “should” lose. This will be one of the most unpredictable teams in the country.
4. Jaylen Waddle (WR, Alabama)
Jaylen Waddle reeled in three TDs in the Iron Bowl and showed off his electric speed. With Tua Tagovailoa out and Mac Jones in, he was instrumental in turning short passes into longer gains as well as beating the defense over the top. He is one of the nations most electric return men. With fellow WRs Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III headed to the NFL, he will be one of the biggest stars on the team.
3. Travis Eteinne (RB, Clemson)
Clemson’s superstar RB surprised many (not Coach Swinney) when he announced he’d return for his senior season. He had promised his family he’d get his degree, and after receiving a second round draft grade, decided to make good on that promise rather than leaving early for the draft.
Etienne had just 207 carries last year, a modest amount for a top 5 RB. That kept him off the Doak Campbell and Heisman Trophy lists despite averaging 7.8 YPC. With excellent depth at RB and several likely blowouts on the schedule, that may be the case again in 2020, which is the only reason he isn’t higher on this list.
Etienne’s 19 rushing TDs were down from the absurd 24 he posted the year before. With Coach Elliott saying they may use him more in short-yardage situations, perhaps that TD number can creep back up.
Etienne’s decision to return for his senior season immediately gave him near legendary CJ Spiller-like status. Etienne already owns the Clemson career rushing record. With another big season, especially one capped with the second National Championship of his career, he’ll have a strong claim as the greatest football player in Clemson history. Kelly Gramlich notes that he has a chance to become the first three-time conference players of the year since Hershel Walker. He’s the type of “make something out of nothing” running back that is fun to watch and has a personality that makes him someone you can’t help but cheer for.
How many running backs could be closed in by four defenders near the sideline, two yards behind the line of scrimmage and still somehow get through to the endzone?— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) January 2, 2020
Well, we know one: Travis Etienne.
(Bonus points for high-fiving the safety ✋)#ALLIN pic.twitter.com/zs19hGkQv1
2. Jamie Newman (QB, Georgia)
Georgia has been very good, but very boring the past few years. The Bulldogs have brought in the top rated recruits in the country, even beating Clemson and Alabama in that regard, since Coach Smart has taken over. Their old school offense hasn’t put it to good use though. They chose Jake Fromm over Justin Fields at QB, leading to the latter’s transfer to Ohio State. Many said Fromm was better for their offense. The obvious response to that is: they should have an offense that can utilize elite QB talent.
Now, Jake Fromm is gone. Running back De’Andre Swift is off to the NFL too. It seems they may have realized it is time to innovate or die.
In comes Wake Forest transfer QB Jamie Newman. Newman was ransacked by Clemson, but posted over 2,800 passing yards and nearly 600 rushing yards. He is built like Cam Newton at 6’4” 230 lbs. Can UGA adjust their offense to take advantage of his skill set? They were unwilling or unable to do it with Fields. How will Jamie Newman perform with elite talent, rather than Wake Forest talent, around him? These are two of the most interesting questions we’ll have answered this season.
1. Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)
Lawrence has suffered just one loss since taking over as starting QB at Clemson. Unfortunately, it was in the National Title game against LSU. Will 2020 give us the version of Lawrence who was the best player in football from halftime of the Louisville game to the end of the Fiesta Bowl or the one who was turnover prone early in the season and inaccurate against LSU?
Lawrence won’t have Tee Higgins to throw to next year. Will Ross and a younger receiver like Joseph Ngata step up? Will Tee’s absence lead him to attack the middle of the field more often? Speaking of middle of the field, will Braden Galloway give him the target he needs to attack there? Lawrence became a major rushing threat last season. Does that continue to grow or do they protect his health?
Lawrence has a chance to surpass Deshaun Watson as the greatest QB in school history. He’s incredibly likable. He has a rocket arm and a willingness to use it. He’s incredibly fun to watch and will be propelled by his experience in the New Orleans Super Dome to go out on top. Tiger fans should savor every chance they get this season to watch Lawrence (and Etienne).