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Clemson Football vs. Duke Preview: Tigers Travel to Face Duke

Labor Day Showdown!

Hello folks! We have FINALLY made it to game week and the 2023 football season! This time of year is always super exciting, but it becomes even more so when you have the injection of some new blood. Clemson has just that with new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley bringing his award winning skills to the table. Meanwhile, Duke is preparing for their biggest game since the ACC Championship Game vs. Florida State back in 2013.

This is Clemson’s second straight year playing on Labor Day away from home, but unlike last year when Georgia Tech had a coach very much on the hot seat (and eventually fired during the season), Duke is coming off a 9-win season with 18 returning starters and the reigning ACC Coach of the Year. Let’s get to the matchups!

Clemson defense vs. Duke offense: While Garrett Riley is making his debut as Clemson’s OC, Wes Goodwin is now entering his second full season running the Clemson defense. Last year was a half-step back from what was a very strong (thankfully) 2021 defense in Brent Venables’ last season in Clemson. Goodwin stepped in for the bowl game and did a very good job against current starting QB for the 49ers Brock Purdy and the Iowa State Cyclones. However, problems at cornerback and a down year from a very banged up Andrew Mukuba led to the defense largely underperforming last season. Goodwin has a healthy defense and plenty of veterans at all three levels that should lead to a unit that is much closer to 2014 and 2018 than 2022. There are really no excuses now for a guy looking to show he really belongs in the driver’s seat.

Duke presents some challenges for Goodwin’s defense, starting with a veteran QB coming off a strong season in Riley Leonard. Typically Clemson’s losses in the last seven-plus years have featured a quarterback playing at a very high level. Very few teams have been able to just dictate things with their running game, so QB play is at an absolute premium for Clemson’s opponents. Leonard has shown he can potentially deliver that type of performance. Duke also features a veteran offensive line and a high draft pick prospect in LT Graham Barton who was first team All-ACC last year. Clemson’s Xavier Thomas is healthy and looking to position himself for a big pay day in next year’s NFL draft, and he has an excellent opportunity to put himself on the map against a guy a lot of scouts are watching. That will be an outstanding matchup to keep an eye on.

One storyline out of fall camp is Clemson’s new offense providing a legit challenge for the defense for the first time in a couple of seasons. These things are always tricky to monitor because does it say more about the improvement of the offense or perhaps issues on defense? I would have to say the former due to all the talent the Tiger defense has at its disposal. This is particularly true for Clemson’s DL facing what finally should be a really legitimate offensive line in practice. All good defense starts with stopping the run and making a team one dimensional. Clemson will look to make Leonard have to throw the ball a lot more than he wants to and punish him when he looks to run (or with sacks/pressures). Typically turnovers are generated by either fooling a QB into a poor decision or creating havoc that puts the ball in jeopardy.

The back four, especially corner, had the most issues last year for Clemson’s defense. However, the forced early action that guys like Toriano Pride, Jaeden Lukas, and especially Nate Wiggins got last year and the growing pains that came with it should pay big dividends this season. Wiggins is poised to be perhaps the best corner in the ACC and Sheridan Jones is back and healthy with a ton of experience. Now the Tigers have at least two more guys they can trust to play behind those two, not to mention some promising younger talent that can be brought along at a more reasonable pace. Last year, you could see Goodwin preferred to play more aggressive coverages, but he was forced to adjust after the issues Wake Forest presented. Clemson’s three top line safeties are all potential All-ACC candidates and Mukuba is back healthy looking for a 2013 Sammy Watkins-esque rebound season. I expect to see a lot of nickel and variations of the dime of doom made popular in 2019 when Clemson featured this type of veteran talent in the back.

Up front, Clemson fans are very eager to see Peter Woods make his debut. He’s already listed as a co-starter next to two established NFL prospects in Ruke Orhorhoro and Tyler Davis. Unfortunately, Bryan Bresee’s final season was plagued by health issues and the tragic passing of his sister, but TD, Ruke, and Woods are poised to have the kind of game wrecking seasons Clemson fans enjoyed with the Power Rangers. I would rank Duke’s OL in the top 3 Clemson will face in the regular season, so we will be able to tell a lot coming out of this one about how good this defense can really be. UGA faced a similar situation vs. the Oregon OL last year and showed right away that they would be a dominant force on defense.

Lastly, Clemson’s true highlight players in the preseason are starting linebackers Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. It will be interesting to watch how these two, plus Wade Woodaz, work to deal with Riley Leonard as a run threat (he was Duke’s leading rusher last year with just under 700 yards). Duke will absolutely try to work option concepts to try to offset Clemson’s defensive athleticism, and these typically create one on one situations in space. I will be watching closely to see how much Goodwin and the defense can “muddy the waters” for Leonard pre-snap. I felt several teams were able to recognize Clemson’s pressures pre-snap last year which led to giving up more explosive plays. This is an area that should definitely be better.

Clemson offense vs. Duke defense: I’m already wondering if Clemson wins the toss, will Dabo elect to put his new offense out there first? Last season seemed more about massaging fragile egos on offense, particularly at QB, than truly being in attack mode. Riley’s hire has definitely helped Clemson move into a different headspace, which is as important or even moreso than the X’s and O’s. Cade Klubnik certainly appears to have all the right traits between the ears as well as physically to have Clemson back at the top for QB play in the league. He has a fully healthy compliment of WR, top tight end Jake Briningstool, and arguably the best running back room in the ACC if not the nation. More importantly, the offensive line is shaping up to be the strongest unit Clemson has had in several years.

Of course, I am tempering my excitement for the WR and OL based on the last two years of hearing some positive things only to be ultimately disappointed. Clemson’s last outing against Tennessee was not a great night for the OL, particularly in pass protection which had been a relative strength all year. Duke is not overly talented on defense but head coach Mike Elko has got the group playing much more soundly. Although Duke returns a lot of starters, they did lose their best defensive player from last year in Shaka Heyward. They have two transfers in to play corner, one that followed Elko from Texas A&M and Al Blades who came from Miami.

I noted in my running back preview that I am looking for around 200 yards per game rushing from this year’s offense. Clemson rarely loses when it tops 200 yards on the ground, and last year’s loss vs. South Carolina was the first one like that in a very long time. Duke was weaker as a pass defense last year than rush defense, but Clemson should still impose its will on the Blue Devils with Shipley and Mafah. This is the side of the ball where Clemson should have the greatest advantages in the game. If Duke goes cover 1 or cover 0, I definitely need to see Clemson hit for some explosive pass plays over the top. That will go a long way to allay any lingering doubts from 2021 and 2022.

Special Teams: Clemson had an improved special teams unit last year and actually blocked some kicks for the first time in a while. Still, the Tigers were without a kick or punt return for a score and had a very bad day in this phase against South Carolina which was a major reason that loss occurred. Upsets are almost always driven by turnover margin and special teams situations.

Clemson has Will Shipley to return kicks and Antonio Williams had an overall good first year as a punt returner. The Tigers are having to replace B.T. Potter but have Robert Gunn who may actually have an even stronger leg than Potter. Of course Gunn will have to show he can carry things into actual games. Clemson’s strong defensive recruiting classes the last two years should be felt first on special teams where many young players have bigger roles. Duke had a good unit last year, ranked #23 by Phil Steele. Clemson’s ST were ranked 44th and will hopefully approach the top 25 this season.

Overall: Openers are tricky because so much of the projection is based on last year’s players and results. Both staffs have had a ton of time to prepare for this game. I think one intangible is the stage this game is on because Duke simply hasn’t been on it in a very long time whereas Clemson is very accustomed to the bright lights and a national audience. How close this game will be comes down to what kind of start Duke gets off to. Duke is looking to make a major statement that last year’s 9-win season was just the start and not a byproduct of sneaking up on folks and a weaker schedule. Clemson is looking to show it is a serious playoff contender once again with the kind of QB/WR play that makes that so. I respect Elko a great deal. He did a fantastic job last year and I expect that will continue even if the Blue Devils are closer to .500 this year, nevertheless Clemson will figure it out enough to pull away and win this game.

Also, you can check out the preview discussion I had with Ryan Kantor last week (same video as at the top of the article):


Clemson 36-Duke 20.