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2020 Clemson Football Season Preview: Expectations

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COVID-19 induced scheduling changes make Clemson’s task more challenging (and fun) in 2020.

Clemson v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Clemson got a new schedule on August 6th, and with that we can recalibrate our expectations for what the season may hold. Major League Baseball has shown us that sports can work without a bubble, but it may entail postponements and adjustments, and there will probably be some positive C19 cases throughout the season. That makes predicting even tougher. It is also why the ACC eliminated three non-conference games and maximized schedule flexibility. With that said, here’s Clemson’s new 2020 schedule:

Each year, the Tigers strive to reach five team goals:

  1. Win the opener
  2. Win the division
  3. Win the state championship
  4. Win the ACC
  5. Win the closer

For 2020, those goals will have to be tweaked. The opener changed from at Georgia Tech to at Wake Forest. There are no divisions and the SEC cancelled the Palmetto Bowl. So, with that said, what are the adjusted expectations?

Certainly, the first expectation is to start off with a win over Wake Forest. The Palmetto Bowl isn’t happening, so the state championship will be between Clemson and the Citadel in the second game of the year. The Citadel Bulldogs did beat the Cocks 23-22 in Williams-Brice Stadium the last time they played (2015) so that seems fair. The ACC Championship is still on the docket and should make for a much more intriguing matchup than in years past, as it’ll pair the #1 and #2 teams (as it should every year) and potentially include Notre Dame. Finally, while some of the lower tier bowl games (like the Red Box Bowl) won’t be played, all indications are good for the college football playoff. So winning the opener, the state championship, the ACC, and the closer remain goals.

Offense

Clemson returns the two biggest names on offense - Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne - but there are still some holes that’ll be tough to fill. The most pressing is at WR.

Tee Higgins was selected with the first pick of the second round and will be catching passes from Joe Burrow rather than Trevor Lawrence. Justyn Ross was assumed to be the next man up, but a congenital spinal problem has him out for the season. That leaves Joseph Ngata (9-WR), Amari Rodgers (Slot), and Frank Ladson (co-starter with Cornell Powell at 5-WR). The trio combined for just 794 total receiving yards last season. They’re unproven, but bursting with talent.

I’m excited to see what Frank Ladson has in store for 2020. He added 13 lbs. and weighed in at 203 at the August 5th weigh-in, and although he has missed chunks of practice due to COVID-19 safety protocol, he is my bet to fill the void at WR. Tight end Braden Galloway is another big piece for the passing game. He was suspended last season after a positive Osterine test (which the staff has publicly said was accidental and from something tainted he must have ingested), but returned for the National Championship game and had two catches for 60 yards. Based on Alex Rollins’ film review of Trevor Lawrence, it seems his continued development may lead to less dependence on outside receivers and more strikes across the middle. Braden Galloway could be a key target.

While Ladson and Galloway may keep the passing game churning at a high-level, it’s probably appropriate to expect some drop off after losing the top two receivers and four offensive linemen from a strong pass blocking offensive line. Combine that with one of the deepest running back rooms imaginable, and the Tigers could grind their ACC opponents into submission on the ground.

The aforementioned Travis Etienne is back. He is 24 rushing touchdowns away from tying the all-time record for a running back (77 - Montee Ball). He needs 1.7 rushing touchdowns per game (through 14 games), and Coach Elliott has already said he self-scouted last season’s film and realized they should have been handing the ball off to Travis in the red zone more. I expect to see a very special year from the senior.

He’ll have to share the rock though, because there’s a lot of depth behind him. Lyn-J Dixon is a rising junior and figures to be the primary backup running back. He’s already been a reliable back-up with good vision and cut. Sophomores Mikey Dukes and Chez Mellusi showed promise as freshmen and seemingly deserve touches. Redshirt senior Darien Rencher, who has made a name for himself in his fight to save the college football season, received praise from Coach Swinney for his pass protection in camp. He is a reliable player the staff trusts.

On top all that, two freshmen have joined the fray and are making waves. Kobe Pace, who draw comparisons to James Davis for a strength and shiftiness, and Demarkcus Bowman who draws comparisons to CJ Spiller for his speed. Perhaps one will redshirt, but even so, with that kind of depth, running back is a tremendous strength that could offset growing pains in the passing game.

Defense

The Tigers defensive line wasn’t dominant last year. Fortunately, the back seven was excellent and the defense played very well overall. There were high expectations for rising junior DE Xavier Thomas coming into 2020. The news that he isn’t in shape after catching COVID-19 followed by strep throat during the spring semester at home is a tough blow for the Tigers. He’ll redshirt and could play four games at the end of the year.

Highly-touted DE prospect KJ Henry presumably will start opposite Justin Foster. That could be a good duo if Henry reaches his potential. True freshman Myles Murphy and redshirt sophomore Justin Mascoll will likely be the second-stringers. Bryan Breese, the #1 recruit in the nation, was listed as a DT on the depth chart, but reportedly could play some DE. Like wide receiver, defensive end is a spot where there is a ton of talent, but it is largely unproven.

Beyond that question mark, the defense looks stellar. Replacing Isaiah Simmons, who was drafted 8th overall by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, won’t be easy, but Clemson has sufficient depth (and rabbits in DC Brent Venables’ hat) to avoid a major dropoff.

The secondary absorbs the loss of CB AJ Terrell (first round to the Falcons) and safeties K’Von Wallace (Eagles) and Tanner Muse (Raiders), but the secondary was a strength last season. At cornerback, Derion Kendrick, LeAnthony Williams, Mario Goodrich, Andrew Booth, and Malcolm Greene will battle for snaps and provide plenty of depth. Redshirt senior safety Nolan Turner received a lot of playing time last season and clinched the Fiesta Bowl with an interception. He will be elevated to starter, as will sophomore Lannden Zanders. Breaking in two new starters brings questions, but the track record of Clemson’s defense over the past few seasons is hard to ignore, and it frankly makes any serious worry seem foolish. The Tigers will likely have the best defense in the conference, if not towards the very top in all of college football.

Schedule

Clemson previously ranked second to last among Power Five teams (ahead of only Syracuse) in SBD’s strength of schedule rankings. With the schedule shuffle, things got relatively tougher.

Akron, one of the weakest FBS teams in the country was removed and not replaced from the schedule. Games against NC State, Louisville, and U of SC were replaced with ones against Miami, Virginia Tech, and Pittsburgh. That’s a significantly bigger challenge. Here’s the schedule again:

  1. Sep 12 - at Wake Forest
  2. Sep 19 - The Citadel
  3. Sep 26 - Open Date
  4. Oct 3 - Virginia
  5. Oct 10 - Miami
  6. Oct 17 - at Georgia Tech
  7. Oct 24 - Syracuse
  8. Oct 31 - Boston College (Halloween)
  9. Nov 7 - at Notre Dame
  10. Nov 14 - Open Date
  11. Nov 21 - at Florida State
  12. Nov 28 - Pittsburgh (Thanksgiving)
  13. Dec 5 - at Virginia Tech

The Tigers’ schedule is extremely back-loaded. Through the season’s first eight weeks, Miami may be the only legitimate threat to a focused Clemson Tigers team. The Hurricanes have been wildly inconsistent in recent years, but that inconsistency also highlights their upside. They’ve fielded the second best defense in the conference for several years and bring in a new offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, and an exciting new transfer QB from Houston, D’Eriq King. Will it all work it for the team that lost to Georgia Tech, Florida International, and Louisiana Tech last season? Honestly, probably not, but the upside is certainly there and that makes them the closest thing to a threat the Tigers face until a huge November 7th tilt in South Bend.

The two biggest games in the college football season this year will be Georgia at Alabama and Clemson at Notre Dame. Both games could be previews of conference championship games and will have major implications for the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame was ranked #10 in the Coaches Poll and slides up to #7 once you remove Big Ten and Pac-12 teams. While fans of elite teams like to look down their nose at Notre Dame, the Irish are 20-3 in games Ian Book starts. He’s back for his redshirt senior season and will have his entire offensive line back intact. Clemson will benefit from Notre Dame Stadium being less than full due to COVID-19, but this will be toughest regular season matchup since the Tigers went to Tallahassee to face a strong Florida State team back in 2016 and escaped with a 37-34 victory.

Clemson follows their toughest game of the season with an open date, but a postponed game could certainly be moved into that weekend. After that, the Tigers face the rival Seminoles. They’re a far cry from where they were in 2016, let alone 2013, but they have loads of talent and thus the upside to beat a good opponent. I wouldn’t expect it after the turmoil of the off-season, but there are easier wins in the ACC than at Florida State. The Tigers then play Pittsburgh on the weekend they normally play U of SC, then close with a December trip to Blacksburg, Virginia.

The Hokies aren’t what they used to be, and Lane Stadium won’t provide the home field advantage it normally does, but traveling to the mountains in December adds an element of randomness with the weather.

Expectations

The over/under for Clemson’s win total is 10.5 (of 11 games) and that seems fair. The schedule presents six near locks (WF, Citadel, UVA, GT, Cuse, BC), one major challenge (ND), and three games that fall somewhere in-between (FSU, Pitt, VT). What makes a win total so hard to predict is the possibility that key players will have to sit out due to COVID-19 protocol. Several players have already missed big chunks of practice for this season so it stands to reason it will likely happen during the season. For that reason, 10-1 seems just as likely as a perfect season. With Ohio State and Oregon bowing out of the season and playoff race playoff race, an 11-1 ACC champion should be a lock for the playoff.

Once the Tigers are in full-blown championship phase, you don’t bet against them. Oklahoma has a chance to surprise a lot of people with a lot returning on a (slowly) improving defense and Lincoln Riley returning on offense. Alabama and Georgia are dangerous contenders, but Alabama has a question mark at QB, and Georgia has a general question mark for the offense with a new offensive coordinator, new QB, and significant losses on the offensive line.

The Tigers have a better chance than anyone to claim the National Championship, but a perfect season may not be in the cards simply because the craziness of 2020 doesn’t bode well for perfection.