Preseason Prime 25: No. 1 Clemson once more the workforce to beat in 2020 behind Trevor Lawrence, loaded offense

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With a handful of teams starting the year with claim as “best in the country,” Clemson actually begins as the No. 1 team in our Preseason CBS Sports 130 rankings. And it’s certainly no surprise to see the Tigers take the No. 1 spot.

There’s a worthy discussion for Clemson or Ohio State, but the Tigers won that argument on the field in the Fiesta Bowl last December. Trevor Lawrence may have suffered his first loss as a starting college quarterback in the College Football Playoff National Championship against LSU, but that lone defeat is not changing his outlook for what should be another year of title contention for the Tigers.

Clemson started the 2019 season as the No. 1 team in the CBS Sports 130 as well only to see its stock take a hit after escaping with a 21-20 win at North Carolina in September. Our voters first moved Alabama, then LSU and then Ohio State into that No. 1 spot before handing back to LSU before the postseason. Clemson never fell far from the top, even making it back up to No. 2 in early December, but this offseason marks the Tigers’ reclaiming of a No. 1 spot that they held held often during their run of five straight College Football Playoff appearances.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 2 | Achievements: ACC champion, Fiesta Bowl champion, College Football Playoff runner-up

The beginning of the season was all about Lawrence, but as he racked up interceptions — at one point leading the ACC in the category — he went from Heisman Trophy frontrunner to not even finishing as one of the finalists, falling from the national conversation. Still, he settled down and got Tigers offense rolling. What those who stopped paying attention missed was the 20 touchdown, zero interception performance from late October through Selection Sunday, where Lawrence never completed less than 72% of his passes and threw for at least three touchdowns in every game. He was tested by an elite Ohio State defense in the College Football Playoff Semifinal but used his legs as the difference-maker in guiding the Tigers to a thrilling win.

But then came that showdown with LSU. Clemson has won some incredible heavyweight bouts in the College Football Playoff era, but I think the 29-game winning streak we forgot the Tigers are capable of losing one, too. Sometimes you don’t play your best game, and when you’re facing a juggernaut like that 2019 LSU team, you’re going to get beat. Clemson struck first and had some life early in the second half but made too few plays to win the biggest game of the year.

Key departures

  • Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott: The former Clemson wide receiver has been a crucial piece to establishing the Tigers as a dominant offensive team over the last decade. Now he gets his head coaching opportunity at South Florida while former co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott takes sole control of the position.
  • LB Isaiah Simmons: You don’t just replace a unique football talent like Simmons, who was able to contribute at all three levels of the defense. Whether it was rushing the passer or playing run support from the linebacker or safety position (as he did in the second half of the Fiesta Bowl to help contain J.K. Dobbins), there was no one better at making his impact felt on a game.
  • CB A.J. Terrell: A key piece of Clemson’s 15-0 title run in 2018 that included the first points of the 44-16 win against Alabama, Terrell followed up his show-stopping title game performance with a First Team All-ACC season in 2019. His exit is part of a dramatic turnover at the back end of Clemson’s defense.
  • WR Tee Higgins: After some light work as a freshman, Higgins became one of the most dominant receivers in the ACC during his sophomore and junior seasons. In just three years, Higgins totaled 27 career receiving touchdowns, which is tied for the most in school history with DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
  • OL John Simpson: The value of “fit” is incredibly important at Clemson, and Simpson’s familiarity made him somewhat of an iconic figure. The South Carolina native played in 50 games, started 29 of them and won the hearts of many when he showed up to 2019 ACC Media Day with a Trevor Lawrence wig.

Who’s back?

  • RB Travis Etienne: For all the talk about Lawrence and Clemson’s offense, the player with the most accolades in the backfield is two-time ACC Player of the Year. Etienne doesn’t get as much national recognition because his workload doesn’t produce high season totals, but no back in the country is able to accomplish more with fewer touches. He averaged 8.1 yards per attempt in 2018 and 7.8 yards per attempt in 2019 and has already broken the ACC career rushing touchdown record with 56 scores in just three years.
  • QB Trevor Lawrence: Get ready for a season full of Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Fields comparisons. It’s the ultimate “who ya got” for the Heisman Trophy, national championship and overall No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. The scrutiny will be unbearable and there will be much nitpicking, but at this point I believe Lawrence is more than used to the unwanted attention and lines of non-essential questions he’ll face throughout the season.
  • WR Justyn Ross: A light turned on for Ross between the end of the 2018 regular season and the College Football Playoff. In wins against Notre Dame and Alabama, he totaled 12 catches for 301 yards and three touchdowns. In 2019, he was the team leader in receptions with 66 and starts 2020 as the undisputed alpha in a talented receivers room.
  • DE Xavier Thomas: After a Freshman All-America season in 2018, hopes were high for Thomas last year. The struggles were two-fold, first dealing with adjustment to a new role in the defense, and second a midseason injury that set him back and resulted in just eight starts and 12 appearances during the year. The absence of a superstar sophomore season was befuddling to those rooting for the No. 3 player in the country from the 2018 recruiting class, but Dabo Swinney in encouraged by the progress he’s made to this point in his career.

    “It’s not just a theory on whether or not he can be a great player. He’s just progressing,” Swinney said in March, according to 247Sports. “You think back to Andre Branch, it took him a while. Vic Beasley, he didn’t start a game until his fourth year. Xavier Thomas is a million times ahead of where Beasley was. But we just forget, because sometimes these guys have such unrealistic expectations on them and it’s a hard game and there’s a lot to learn.”

Fresh faces

  • DT Bryan Bresee: The natural talent for Bresee, the No. 1 overall player from the 2020 class, is undeniable. His size and strength are ready for the college game right now, but the kind of alpha dominance he carried prior to Clemson will take a hit as he learns the intricacies of Brent Venables’ system and the finer points of defensive line. But make no mistake: When the training wheels come off, there will be a monster unleashed on the ACC.
  • QB DJ Uiagalelei: Speaking of college-ready body, there is no “filling out” process for the 6-foo-5, 245-pound five-star quarterback from St. John’s Bosco in California. Playing behind Lawrence will allow Uiagalelei to develop the mental side of the position and learn the offense, but if he’s needed to step up in case of injury, there’s enough raw talent already on display to think he can answer the call.
  • DE Myles Murphy: Like the other two five-star freshman listed here, Murphy enrolled at Clemson in January and has been acclimating himself to the community and his teammates in hopes of making an impact this fall. Murphy ranked as the No. 7 overall player in the 2020 class — that’s right, Clemson has three top-10 players in the class — yet his impact might not be felt in a major way in 2020 because of the log jam of talent along the defensive line.

Critical games

Sept. 12 vs. Louisville: I know it may seem strange to list this game as “critical” after the Tigers’ 45-10 road win a year ago, but the early-season meeting with the Cardinals represents an interesting test for Clemson’s defense without Isaiah Simmons. Louisville may not have Lawrence-Etienne-Ross, but its quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio of Micale Cunningham, Javian Hawkins and Tutu Atwell ranks among the best in the league.

Oct. 10 at Florida State: Mike Norvell is working to reestablish Florida State as an ACC power, and that means being competitive with Clemson. The Seminoles will look to this game as an exam to test their championship caliber and if there’s some buzz building through the first month of the season the environment in Tallahassee, Florida, will be a good test of how this team handles hostile environments.

Nov. 7 at Notre Dame: The rematch of the 2018 Cotton Bowl is one of the games of the year in all of college football. Clemson could use a road win at Notre Dame to anchor its College Football Playoff profile, and the Irish (with a win) could crash the same national championship conversation.

2020 outlook

This is the most talented Clemson team under Swinney. We just don’t know yet who is going to emerge from some of these loaded position rooms as the next wave of future pros wearing orange and white. We know quarterback and running back, but what about an offensive line that loses long-time anchors on the interior like Simpson and Tremayne Ancrhum? The defensive line could trot out five-stars over five-stars, but there’s less certainty about the depth at linebacker and in the secondary.

But even with those questions — and I know this is exactly the thing Swinney and coaches hate to hear mentioned — talent alone get Clemson to 9-10 wins. The roster has been built up to a point where you almost have to spot the Tigers two touchdowns when they get off the bus against most ACC opponents. That’s going to lead to some lopsided results, questions about strength of schedule and a season full of over-analyzing Clemson compared to its peers at the top of college football.

That’s the universe Clemson occupies now, where the team’s biggest threat is not being able to meet its own standard. The program that has gone 69-5 since the start 2015 has achieved that success with elite talent evaluation and player development. Now that same staff that was able to win two national championships with classes that ranked around the top-10 has leveled up into a top-five competitor, pulling in talent from all across the country and going head-to-head with the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

So what do we expect from Clemson? Regular attendance at the College Football Playoff, ready to settle the 12-month dispute for supremacy in the sport on the field against the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

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