No. 6 Clemson
Clemson is not defending the national championship. They're just chasing another one.
“We’re not defending a national championship. We don’t talk about that,” Dabo Swinney said in March. “We’re chasing another one. Last year is over. We’ve got a lot of champions on this team, but this team has its own journey, and it’s totally separate from last year.”
And this team is laced with new names after Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Carlos Watkins and more than a dozen other key players graduated or left early for the NFL. The talent is there thanks to good recruiting and first-rate player development.
2016 Record: 14-1 (7-1, ACC)
Clemson's title-winning season wasn't as pretty as some highlight reels suggest. It was laced with land mines. They played with fire in close wins over Auburn and Troy in early September and narrowly edged Louisville, North Carolina State and Florida State in October.
The Tigers overcame a mid-November home loss to Pittsburgh, beat Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship and embarrassed Ohio State in the national semifinals to reach the national championship, where they stunned Alabama in the closing seconds to capture their first title in 35 years.
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (10th year, 85-25 overall*)
Before Dabo Swinney arrived, the program record for most wins over a four-year period was 40 (four-straight 10-win seasons from 1987-90). He has 49 the last four years, including back-to-back 14-win seasons, the first-ever such instance in college football history.
“We build our program with a windshield mentality — win or lose, it’s always about what’s next,” Swinney said. “We start over. We don’t assume anything. We reinstall the core values of our program, and back to work. There’s some change, and change brings new energy and excitement.”
*Does not include 4-3 mark after he replaced Tommy Bowden in October 2008.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Kelly Bryant, RB C.J. Fuller, WR Deon Cain, OT Mitch Hyatt, OT Sean Pollard, G Taylor Hearn, G Tyrone Crowder
How do you quantify what Clemson's offense lost in Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and three of their top four receiving targets? 22.4 percent. They return only 22.4 percent of their offensive yards, tied for 127th in the nation.
“It’s always about what’s next,” the always-forward-thinking Swinney said in April. “It’s important to learn and grow from what’s behind you, but it’s behind you. God put our eyes in the front of our head. It’s all about where we’re going, not where we’ve been.”
"What's next" is a junior quarterback with fewer career pass attempts that Watson had in most individual games last season. Kelly Bryant hasn't officially — or at least publicly — won the job over freshmen Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper, but all signs point to him starting Week 1.
"Our team is very confident in Kelly right now on where we are in fall camp,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said last week of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound dual-threat passer. "He is not overwhelmed with what we are doing . . . I would say the overall, flow, execution and pace of the offseason has been really good with him at quarterback."
His weapons will be junior running back C.J. Fuller — 382 career yards on 89 carries (4.3 yards per carry), and receivers Deon Cain and title game hero Hunter Renfrow. Cain's 19.1 yards-per-reception average ranked 19th in the FBS, though he did drop 13.6 percent of his targets.
"I know I’ve got a bigger role this year so I know I’ve got to do a little bit more than what I had to last year. Just trying to be a little more athletic," Cain said. I just know I've got to be in a lot more plays on the field, I've got to get my endurance up, so just a lot of behind the scenes work."
That group is protected by an elite offensive line that returns four starters, including an brick-wall tackle in Mitch Hyatt. He did not allow a single sack on 550 pass-blocking snaps in 2017.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Dexter Lawrence, DT Christian Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell, LB Dorian O'Daniel, LB Kendall Joseph, CB Ryan Carter, S Van Smith
Brent Venables' unit ranked among the country's best in almost every defensive category, among them third-down conversion rate (fifth), turnovers forced (10th), tackles for loss (third), sacks (10th), scoring (10th) and yards allowed (eighth).
They return seven starters, including the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. Not only did he lead the team with 13 tackles for loss, the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder used his big paws to break up nine passes. He and Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell — both sophomores — lead the terrifying unit that dominate almost every offensive line this season.
“Christian is a worker. You know, he’s out there after practice every day. He practices hard. He’s a coachable kid,” Swinney said. “He’s not a guy that’s going to take, to pick his spots. He’s going to bring it every day.”
Ben Boulware is finally gone at linebacker, but Venables gets back two upperclassmen in Kendall Joseph and Dorain O'Daniel. Joseph — who was buried in all-conference preseason voting (fifth among linebackers) — had 106 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks during his breakout sophomore campaign. He's not as vocal as Boulware but is equally as talented.
“Kendall loves it,” Venables said of Joseph's new leadership role. “He’s a very selfless player. He’s an excellent player and knows the system very well. He values the players around him. He has a maturity about him and he understands, ‘If I don’t lead, who will?"
Clemson doesn't return a defensive back who had more than two picks or seven passes defended a year ago, though they do get back corner Ryan Carter and safety Van Smith. Smith, a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder, suffered a thumb injury during camp but will be 100 percent well before Week 1.
Notable Player Losses
QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Mike Williams, TE Jordan Leggett, C Jay Guillermo, DT Carlos Watkins, LB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley, S Jadar Johnson
Whenever Clemson fans returned to earth from their weeks-long post-title freedom festival, they were greeted with a harsh dose of 2017 reality: Most of their stars are gone.
Not only were they losing Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett, one of the best centers in the nation, Jay Guillermo, was also done in Death Valley. The same goes for the defense, who lost four studs, including one of the most popular players in program history in Ben Boulware.
“There are always guys bigger, taller, faster and all that stuff but there’s very few that are going to play better," Swinney said of Boulware. "That has never changed for him. In his entire life playing football from Pee-Wee to middle school to high school to college, it’s not going to be any different at the next level. He’ll be just fine.”
Notable Player Additions
QB Hunter Johnson, QB Zerrick Cooper, RB Travis Etienne, WR T.J. Chase, DT Nyles Pinckney, S Isaiah Simmons
Assuming Kelly Bryant wins the starting quarterback job, don't stop watching freshmen Hunter Johnson (true) and Zerrick Cooper (redshirt). Johnson was a five-star prospect and the second-ranked pro-style passer in last year's class.
True freshman running back Travis Etienne has turned more than a few heads in fall camp.
"As a runner he’s probably looked the best in camp, just breaking tackles, making plays. He’s definitely the quickest,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said in mid-August. “Travis has been getting a lot of reps, and I tell you what, he’s fast, he’s quick. He has a great feel, a natural runner.
Defensively, redshirt freshmen Nyles Pinckney and Isaiah Simmons both made the post-spring two-deep. Simmons is a massive — seriously, massive (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) — safety who was an under-the-radar three-star recruit from Kansas. He's been flying around this month and will play at both strong safety and nickelback.
We'll know very early if Clemson can repeat as ACC and national champs. After working out the kinks at home against Kent State in the opener, they have back-to-back games against Auburn (home) and Louisville (away).
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Kent State|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Auburn|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Louisville|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Boston College|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Virginia Tech|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Wake Forest|
|Friday, Oct. 13||at Syracuse|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Georgia Tech|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at North Carolina State|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Florida State|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. The Citadel|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at South Carolina|