The Tigers won the ACC and made the College Football Playoff for the sixth time in a row. The season can hardly be called anything short of a success, especially since it was at risk of not even happening back in August. Nevertheless, it was only the second time in the past six years that the Tigers didn’t reach the National Championship game.
As we turn the page on 2020 and start looking forward to what could be a very special 2021 season, let’s breakdown what turned out to be some of the Tigers strengths and weaknesses throughout this year.
The Tigers had not one, but two excellent quarterbacks in 2020. The starter, Trevor Lawrence, had his best statistical season on a per-game basis. He averaged 315 yards, 2.4 TDs, and 0.50 INTs per game (up from 244 yards, 2.4 TDs, and 0.53 INTs per game in 2019). He posted career highs in completion percentage (69.2%) and yards per attempt (9.4).
He did all this despite Clemson’s running game struggling and failing to provide balance for the offense. Additionally, he was without his two best receivers from 2019, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Amari Rodgers was very good, and Cornell Powell, who posted just 57 yards through the first four games, was excellent over the last eight games as he racked up 825 yards. Still, they aren’t “jump ball guys” like Higgins and Ross. In 2019, Lawrence had relied a bit too much on chucking it up to those receivers on the outside, and if the throw was somewhat close, they generally came down with it. In 2020, that crutch was gone and Lawrence became better for it, attacking the middle of the field more effectively.
He only played 10 games after playing 15 in each of his first two seasons. Two games were lost due to COVID re-scheduling (i.e., 11-game regular season instead of 12 plus FSU’s last-minute cancellation), two due his own positive COVID test, and one because they did not earn a berth in the National Championship. Despite this, he posted 3,153 passing yards with 24 TDs and only 4 INTs.
In the two games he missed due to his positive COVID test, backup QB DJ Uiagagelei was excellent. He threw for 342 yards with 2 TDs, 0 INTs, and a rushing TD in an epic comeback win over Boston College. In a close loss to Notre Dame, he threw for 439 yards with 2 TDs, no INTs, and another rushing touchdown. That experience may pay dividends. I feel some strong Peyton Manning/Tee Martin parallels about next season. That is, the program’s iconic superstar QB leaves, but the pieces are all in place and the next QB wins the National Championship. Fortunately for Clemson, Lawrence got one in 2018 and there were two others before that.
Star running back Travis Etienne posted 700 yards fewer than in 2019. Yes, that’s in large part because he played 12 games instead of 15, but he also averaged 5.4 yards per carry, down from 7.8. The reason this was a strength was because Etienne developed into the best receiving back in college football. After just 17 receptions in his first two seasons, he caught 37 in 2019 and 48 in 2020. He led all running backs with 588 receiving yards. Not only was he an elite pass-catching back, but teams keyed in on him as the running back despite an offensive line that struggled in run blocking. His mere threat helped alleviate the lack of balance on offense.
He came back for his senior season and was obviously hoping for more productivity, another championship, and a more fun season with more pageantry. While he was deprived of that, he seems like a near lock for a first round pick in the NFL draft, something that is very difficult to do as a running back. If that comes to fruition, his decision to return will have been the financially correct one!
The most overlooked player for Clemson in 2020 was weakside linebacker Baylon Spector. A fourth-year player getting his first chance to start after Chad Smith’s departure, Spector led the team in tackles. He also led the team in tackles for a loss... and sacks (4.5). The Tigers' defensive line didn’t generate as much pressure as they would have liked and Venables turned to the linebackers for help. Spector played a huge part in their success.
Middle linebacker James Skalski is often called the quarterback of the offense. While he missed time with injury, that served to highlight just how critical he is to the defense. Without him, the Tigers couldn’t stop Ian Book and Notre Dame. In the rematch, he was seemingly in on every play and the Irish offense was stifled. His veteran presence and leadership were tremendous for the Tigers and they’re blessed to get him back for a sixth season.
This has been discussed ad nauseum so I won’t carry on too long here, but suffice it to say the O-line disappointed. Four starters departed from 2019 and the drop off was clear.
Jordan McFadden at right tackle was quite good, but left tackle Jackson Carman, the one returning starter, struggled at times with his new linemates. In the middle, the struggles were more pronounced. Cade Stewart, Matt Bockhorst, and Will Putnam posted less than desirable PFF ratings. The guards - Bockhorst and Putnam - are back for another year and hopefully will take a step in their development with a year under their belt.
Walker Parks, the backup tackle, played very well and should be successful in replacing Jackson Carman, who opted for the NFL over another season. At least one other young lineman who didn’t start next year will need to emerge. There’s reason for optimism in 2021, but if we’re blunt, the offensive line wasn’t good enough to win a National Championship in 2020.
Clemson’s defensive line was probably the most surprising weakness of 2020. Missing Justin Foster for the entire season was much tougher to overcome than anticipated. Xavier Thomas never really getting back to speed after a combination of COVID-19 and strep throat over the off-season was another bigger than expected blow. Former five-star prospect KJ Henry got a lot of opportunities, but it was true freshman Myles Murphy who led the defensive linemen in sacks. Still, Murphy was a true freshman and seemed to hit a wall from time to time.
Defensive tackle Tyler Davis may have been the most important player on defense. He missed several games with injury and they were noticeably weaker in run defense without him. The future is bright on the D-line, but with all the illnesses and injuries it wasn’t meant to be in 2020. For a more in-depth breakdown of this position, check out my defensive line review.
Finally, we get to the last of the three weaknesses. K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse were both taken in the NFL draft after 2019. That elevated Nolan Turner to a starting role.
Nolan Turner exceeded expectations and led the team in solo tackles (second in total tackles) and interceptions (3). Some have complained about his struggles against elite receivers, and that may be a perfectly fair critique, but he was without a doubt Clemson’s best safety. He led the entire defense in snaps with 564. He was a player they couldn’t afford to take off the field at times because they were so young at safety behind him.
The Tigers turned to two sophomores for the biggest chunk of the remaining snaps at safety. Lannden Zanders was the other starter and after some struggles in the first few games, settled down and was reliable, but injuries limited him to 10 games and 394 snaps. Sophomore Joseph Charleston received 502 snaps. Defenses were willing to test the Tigers deep and succeeded enough to drive the Tigers' pass defense ranking outside the top 40. There should be synergy between more experienced safety play and more pressure from the defensive line in 2021, but both were big problems in 2020.