Clemson Tigers — 2019 Syracuse Football preview

Clemson Football
Syracuse hosts Clemson at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will begin its ACC portion of the 2019 season when it hosts Clemson on Sept. 14.

SWINNEY SIGNS RICHEST COLLEGE COACH CONTRACT

Last year, Clemson became the first team since the 1800s to finish a season a perfect 15-0.

You have to dig pretty far back in the record books to find a comparison, with the 1897 Penn and 1984 Yale teams as the only FBS-level teams to accomplish that achievement.

The Tigers handsomely rewarded head coach Dabo Swinney for his success, inking him to 10-year, $92 million deal in April that runs through 2028, making him the highest paid coach in college football.

There are two unique clauses to his contract.

First, like many contracts, if Swinney decides to leave for another school, there will be a steep buyout. But the buyout increases if Swinney takes the head coaching position at Alabama, where he was a walk-on wide receiver and assistant coach in the 1990s.

If he leaves in 2019 or 2020, the buyout of going to Alabama is $6 million ($4 million for any other school). Both numbers decrease over time, but even in the tail end of the contract in 2027, the buyout would be $1 million for any school and $1.5 million for Alabama.

The second unique kicker to the contract involves Swinney continuing to be one of the highest paid college coaches.

If Swinney guides Clemson to the college football semifinal, the contract requires him to be one of college football’s top three paid head coaches the following year. If Clemson doesn’t match the money, he can leave without needing a buyout.

“I am grateful and humbled by the incredible commitment Clemson has made to me, my family and our football program,” Swinney said in a statement. “With this contract, we make a collective statement that we intend to continue pursuing championships and developing total student-athletes for years to come.”

» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s Week 2 matchup with Maryland

WHO TO WATCH FOR

It’s an embarrassment of riches for Clemson on the offensive side of the ball, with All-American candidates at all of the skill positions.

It starts at quarterback, with early Heisman favorite Trevor Lawrence looking to build on his freshman season, when he threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns (and just four interceptions). His two favorite targets, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, are back as well.

Lawrence looked in midseason form during the spring game, completing 19 of 34 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown. That score was thrown to Higgins, who in the first half caught five passes for 55 yards.

Beyond Higgins and Ross, quite possibly the best WR1/WR2 combination in college football, two freshmen impressed in the spring game. Joseph Ngata hauled in five passes for 127 yards while Frank Ladson Jr. had also had five catches for 102 yards.

Behind Lawrence is running back Travis Etienne, who Syracuse fans will remember from last year’s matchup. Etienne gashed the SU defense on Clemson’s final drive as the Tigers hung on for a 27-23 win.

Etienne finished with 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2018.

Clemson has more holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, with its entire front four gone and two of its elite linebackers. Among them included linemen Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, and linebackers Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph.

This is, of course, Clemson, so there’s plenty of talent to fill in, but there are still some concerns.

The interior part of the Tigers’ defensive line is a position that is still in flux. Their two most experienced returning starters—Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney—didn’t practice at all in the spring because of injuries. Williams got injured playing basketball while Pinckney tore his pectoral muscle. Both will not be available until the fall.

That has given tackles Xavier Kelly, Darnell Jefferies, Etinosa Reuben and Tyler Davis more opportunities.

But the defensive lineman that should scare most defensive coordinators (and specifically Syracuse) is Xavier Thomas.

While Syracuse fans are trying to forget Etienne’s impressive final drive, SU fans should also remember Thomas’ bone-crushing blindside sack of Eric Dungey. Even as a backup, he played in all 15 games, recording 43 tackles (12th on Clemson).

As for the linebackers, Lamar and Joseph are gone, but leading tackler Isaiah Simmons returns along with Shaq Smith, who has drawn rave reviews from coaches during the spring.

In the secondary, national title game MVP Trayvon Mullen left early for the NFL, but it’s worth keeping eyes on Kyler McMichael, who played sparingly in 2018, and five-star freshman Andrew Booth. DB Sheridan Jones also impressed in the spring game, recording seven tackles, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a 42-yard pick-6 to led the White team.

PREDICTION

Clemson has a challenging schedule to start the regular season, with home games against Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, before traveling up to Syracuse.

The Yellow Jackets are in the midst of a regime change, with Geoff Collins bringing his spread attack from Temple to replace Paul Johnson’s option offense.

That sets up for the Tigers’ most challenging non-conference game, a date with No. 12 Texas A&M, coached by a familiar foe, Jimbo Fisher. Clemson fans should remember the hurt that Fishers’ FSU team put on the Tigers back in 2013 in a 51-14 demolition at Death Valley. But that was is only win against Clemson.

Syracuse should be the second ranked opponent in a row that Clemson faces, and the last time the two teams met in the Carrier Dome, the Orange pulled off the epic upset.

There will be plenty of pomp and circumstance in Central New York, with Orange Central Weekend and Homecoming schedule, and potentially ESPN College Gameday making an appearance for the first time in school history. I expect the game to live up to all of the hype, with Clemson narrowing escaping with a 30-27 win.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2461 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.