As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its 2020 ACC schedule on October 24 against Clemson.
It’s a rare situation in which an undefeated regular season and a runner-up in the national championship qualifies as a ‘disappointing’ season, but that’s the type of dynasty that Dabo Swinney has established at Clemson.
Where else could expectations go in 2019 after a year in which the Tigers went undefeated in the regular season before steam rolling Alabama, 44-16, in the National Championship game?
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence came into the season as an early Heisman favorite, and the Tigers were the team to beat out of the gate. But Lawrence struggled early on, throwing eight interceptions in the first seven games. That stretch of games nearly included an upset against North Carolina, where the Tigers escaped 21-20 after a failed two-point conversion from the Tar Heels.
He, of course, figured things out after that, and didn’t throw an interception after Oct. 19, while finishing with 3,665 yards and 36 touchdowns. Clemson won by at least 35 points to conclude the regular season.
That earned the Tigers a place in their fifth consecutive College Football Playoff, where they knocked off Ohio State 29-23 before losing to LSU in the National Title game. Lawrence was merely pedestrian in that game, completing just 18 of 37 passes for 234 yards and no touchdowns. By comparison, Joe Burrow finished with 463 yards and five touchdowns to snap Clemson’s 29-game winning streak.
THE OFFENSE IS STILL LOADED
Lawrence heads into 2020 as the Heisman favorite yet again. He’s now a junior, and expected to leave after this season for the NFL. There’s little left to accomplish for Lawrence at this level. As a freshman, he led his team to the national championship. As a sophomore, he led them to the title game. Other than another run at a Heisman Trophy and another championship, what else is there?
Sure, Lawrence will miss throwing to Tee Higgins (drafted with the 33rd overall selection of the 2020 NFL Draft to the Cincinnati Bengals), but he still has star receivers Justyn Ross (865 eight touchdowns) and Amari Rodgers (426 yards and four touchdowns) on the roster.
He’s also joined by running back Travis Etienne, who is also on the Heisman radar. He’s coming off a season where he rushed for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns, and somewhat surprisingly returned for his senior season.
Perhaps the only weakness on the offense will be up front, where left tackle Jackson Carman is the only returning starter. But the coaching staff likes what they have in linemen Matt Bockhorst, Jordan McFadden and Will Putnam.
A lingering question because of canceled spring practices is who would emerge as the team’s starting center. Redshirt junior Cade Stewart was listed atop the depth chart, but redshirt freshmen Mason Trotter and Hunter Rayburn are also considered candidates for the job.
A REWORKED SECONDARY
On the defensive side of the ball, Clemson lost several blue chippers, as well. Safeties Tanner Muse (Las Vegas Raiders) and K’Von Wallace (Philadelphia Eagles), cornerback A.J. Terrell (Atlanta Falcons) and linebacker Isaiah Simmons (Arizona Cardinals) are all in the NFL now.
That leaves a lot of holes in the secondary, with corner Derion Kendrick as the only returning starter. He’s most likely going to be joined by Nolan Turner, who was the hero of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl with the game-clinching interception against the Buckeyes. Joseph Charleston, Lannden Zanders, Mario Goodrich, Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones are other names that Clemson will work into the secondary.
Another intriguing name to keep an eye on in 2020 is defensive end Xavier Thomas. Big things were expected in his sophomore season for the former five-star recruit and No. 3 ranked player in his class, but he logged just two sacks, and was suspended for a part of the national title game because of a violation of team rules. He oozes potential, and this year might be his time to break out.
ANOTHER GREAT SEASON AHEAD
The three potential road blocks on Clemson’s schedule are its home opener against a Louisville team (Sept. 12) that is trying to compete for supremacy in the ACC Atlantic, an Oct. 10 matchup in Tallahassee against a new coaching staff in Florida State, and what will likely be their biggest challenge on Nov. 7 at Notre Dame.
It’s hard to see Clemson not being up to the task, and running through another undefeated season en route to their sixth consecutive CFP. Worst case scenario, they drop an unthinkable two games and fall out, but you’d have to think that at most, the Tigers will be finishing the regular season with at most one loss.
Any loss in the regular season would be a disappointment, a claim that few fan bases in the country can claim at the moment.