Photo by Joshua S. Kelly/USA Today Sports
Texas A&M Football

Clemson aims to knock off Alabama as nation's premier program in 2019

June 18, 2019

Two national championships in three seasons, including last year’s annihilation of Alabama in the title game, has arguably made Clemson the nation’s premier college football program.

Of course, the argument would come from Alabama despite last year’s 44-16 loss to the Tigers. So to prove Clemson has passed Alabama, the Tigers now must equal another Alabama beat and win three titles in four years. Alabama claimed national championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Since the end of World War II only one other team — Nebraska in 1994, ’95 and ’97 —  has accomplished that feat.

Clemson could be next. The Tigers project to have one of the most explosive offenses in the country. They also have recruited at such a high level that several departed star players should be at least adequately replaced.

There are concerns for sure. All-American tackle Mitch Hyatt and All-ACC center Justin Falcinelli are gone. There is no proven tight end. Five players selected in the NFL draft — including three first-rounders — are among seven defensive starters that have departed.

Still, Clemson’s offensive pros far outweigh any of its cons.

The 2019 Clemson offense will include sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who likely will be the first pick in the NFL draft when he’s eligible. Receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins are big-play threats who project as future first-round picks. Travis Etienne may also be the nation’s most explosive running back.

Further, three starters return in the offensive line. Hyatt’s place at left tackle will be filled by sophomore Jackson Carman, a former five-star prospect who was ranked the second-best tackle prospect in the 2018 recruiting class.

Joshua S. Kelly/USA Today Sports
Travis Etienne (9) and Trevor Lawrence (16) combine for the nation’s deadliest backfield going into the 2019 season.

All that means Clemson’s offense may be even more productive than last season’s unit, which averaged 44.3 points per game. That offensive firepower should compensate for any growing pains on defense, which must replace six of its front seven and its best cornerback — Trayvon Mullen.

The secondary will still be formidable. Returning starters Tanner Muse, K’Von Wallace and A.J. Terrell received All-ACC recognition.

The biggest issue is rebuilding the heralded defensive line of eventual first-round picks Clelin Ferrell (Raiders), Christian Wilkins (Dolphins), Dexter Lawrence (Giants) and fourth-round selection Austin Bryant (Lions).

The Tigers won’t be the same up front, but probably won’t fall too far.  Sophomore Xavier Thomas was the nation’s No. 1 defensive end recruit in 2018 and will likely lead a Clemson pass rush this season that has a bunch of former four-star prospects following him.

  • Coach: Dabo Swinney
  • 2018 record: 15-0, 8-0
  • Postseason results: Defeated Notre Dame 30-3 in the CFB first round; Defeated Alabama 44-16 in the national championship game.

Returning Starters

  • Offense (8): T Travis Anchrum, G Gage Cervenka, RB Travis Etienne, WR Tee Higgins, QB Trevor Lawrence, WR Amari Rodgers*, G John Simpson, HB Garrett Williams
  • Defense (4): FS Tanner Muse, LB Isaiah Simmons, CB A.J. Terrell, SS K’Von Wallace.
  • Special teams (3): KR Derion Kendrick, PR Amari Rodgers*, P Will Spiers

* — may miss season with injury

Areas of strength: Although starting receiver Amari Rodgers sustained a torn ACL during spring drills, the passing game still figures to be one of the best in the nation. But Rodgers is no small loss. He was the Tigers’ third-leading receiver in 2018 with 55 catches for 575 yards. He also returned punts. However, the Tigers are still loaded at receiver with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Higgins had 59 catches for 936 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018. Ross had 46 catches for 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. Of course, they also have sophomore Trevor Lawrence throwing to them. Lawrence passed for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions as a true freshman last season.

Area of concern: When projected to be ranked no worse than No. 2 to begin the season it’s quite obvious there aren’t many reasons to worry. Linebacker could cause some angst though. Kendall Joseph completed his eligibility and middle linebacker Tre Lamar opted for early entry into the NFL draft. That leaves hybrid end/outside linebacker Isaiah Simmons as the only returning starter there. Six freshmen were brought in to boost depth there.

Top players

Clemson must replace what was called the best defensive front four in college football history. Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins were NFL first-round draft choices.
  • Trevor Lawrence: Lawrence might have been the first player taken in the 2018 NFL draft had he been eligible. He’s already the most highly-regarded NFL passing prospect since Andrew Luck. He passed for over 3,200 yards as  true freshman and didn’t take over the starting role until the fifth game.
  • Travis Etienne: A big-play threat in every sense. Etienne rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore. He had 23 runs that covered at least 20 yards in 2018 — the most of any player in a Power 5 conference.
  • Justyn Ross: Ross was one of just two receivers in the nation to average more than 21 yards (21.74) yards per catch with more than 40 catches. He did that as a true freshman playing in a reserve role. As a full-time starter, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound speedster figures to accumulate some eye-popping statistics. That is, unless he’s upstaged by counterpart Tee Higgins.

Biggest loss: Typically, this is reserved for one player, but Clemson must replace what was called the best defensive front four in college football history. Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins were NFL first-round draft choices. Austin Bryant was a fourth-round selection. Ferrell, Wilkins and Bryant combined to post 25 sacks and Lawrence was a dominant run stuffer. No doubt, Clemson has recruited well and has talented replacements like five-star prospect Xavier Thomas. Still, the Tigers won’t be nearly as good up front.

Impact newcomer: The Tigers will throw. A lot. Defenses will set coverages and hopes of containing Ross and Higgins. But that — in theory — would leave a third option against a lesser defensive back. That may set up a big freshman year for new receiver Joe Ngata, an explosive 6-foot-3, 205-pound five-star prospect from California, who enrolled early and had a big showing in the Clemson spring game.

2019 schedule

  • Aug. 29 at Georgia Tech
  • Sept. 7 vs. Texas A&M
  • Sept. 14 at Syracuse
  • Sept. 21. vs. Charlotte
  • Sept. 28 at North Carolina
  • Oct. 5 OPEN
  • Oct. 12 vs. Florida State
  • Oct. 19 at Louisville
  • Oct. 26 vs. Boston College
  • Nov. 2 vs. Wofford
  • Nov. 9 at North Carolina State
  • Nov. 16 vs. Wake Forest
  • Nov. 23 OPEN
  • Nov. 30 at South Carolina
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