Opponent Analysis: Clemson Tigers — 2021 Syracuse Football preview

Dabo Swinney
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney delivers remarks during a celebration for the 2018 NCAA College Football National Champions the Clemson Tigers Monday, January 14, 2019, in the East Room. Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.

As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Clemson on Oct. 15 with four major storylines.

Replacing Lawrence.

Trevor Lawrence is off to the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars. And now the attention turns to his successor, D.J. Uiagalelei.

The five-star quarterback from the class of 2020 made two starts in the place of Lawrence when he was out due to COVID-19 protocols, and he impressed in games against Boston College and then-No. 4 Notre Dame.

In his first start against the Eagles, Uiagaelei threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns, and followed that up with 439 yards and two scores against the Fighting Irish, though the Tigers would lose that game 47-40 in double overtime.

Uiagaelei took first-team reps throughout spring, and played well in the spring game, competing 20 of 28 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown, though the coaching staff has been on him about using his athleticism more in the open field.

Regardless, it seems the offense is in very good hands.

And Replacing Etienne.

Travis Etienne was another special player for the Tigers, finishing as the ACC’s all-time leading career rusher, and was selected with the 25th pick of the draft, joining Lawrence with Jacksonville, which NFL on SportsBet has as one of the worst teams heading into 2021.

It’s likely that the Tigers will try to make up for his production with a committee, but certainly Lyn-J Dixon will get a chance to lead that group. The senior rushed for 190 yards and two touchdowns last year, but has over 1,000 career yards to date.

He took first-team reps in the spring and rushed four times for 25 yards in the spring game, but the coaching staff also looked elsewhere in their scrimmage. Sophomore Kobe Pace and freshmen Will Shipley and Phil Mafah will also get looks as well.

Improving its defense.

Viewed through one lens, Clemson’s defense allowing just 20.2 points per game in 2020 was another outstanding year for Brent Venables’ group. But the Tigers were blasted by Ohio State in in the Sugar Bowl, giving up 49 points in a three-touchdown loss.

Clemson also allowed more big plays (30+ years) than any Tigers defense in eight seasons.

Venables returns all but one starter from that group, and the early indications in spring practice is that Clemson’s defense has resolved some of its issues. Sophomores Bryan Bresse (DT) and Myles Murphy (DE) were consistently in the backfield during their spring scrimmage, and it’s no surprise given that Bresse was a Freshman All-American and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Speaking of people back, linebacker James Skalski returns for a sixth year after being granted an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s played in an unprecedented five ACC title games, and will look to add a sixth this fall.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s matchup against Virginia Tech

Another year. Another CFP.

Clemson opens its season against Georgia in what will be the most hyped matchup of opening weekend.

Even if the Tigers do drop that game, their remaining non-conference games are against South Carolina State, UConn and South Carolina. And with Florida State and Louisville in full rebuilds, it stands to reason that the Tigers will once again waltz through their ACC schedule.

Sure, there are some questions along the offensive line and in the secondary, but Clemson has plenty of depth and talent at every single key position, and with their odds at +350 the Tigers are sitting behind only Alabama to win the national championship next season.

Another trip to the College Football Playoffs seems like the safest bet in sports.

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About Wes Cheng 2662 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.