Back Despite Dethronement, Clemson Remains Team to Beat

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Despite Dethronement, Clemson Remains Team to Beat

By Dave Holcomb
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Clemson may have lost last week, but the Tigers still appear to be the team to beat in 2020.

Clemson fell short of finishing a second straight season 15-0 with back-to-back titles, but of the two Tiger programs who played for the national title last week, there’s no question which one is winning the early part of the offseason.

Actually, Clemson has just about everybody beat when it comes to off-the-field matters heading into the 2020 season. As a result, they are almost everyone’s favorite to be right back in the championship game and win it all next year.

While LSU underwent a mass exodus, which included departures from Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, passing game coordinator Joe Brady, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and nine underclassmen heading to the NFL, Clemson is bringing back most of its key contributors from the last two seasons. Clemson will also be adding the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be back at least one more season and running back Travis Etienne elected to return for his senior year. Lawrence didn’t look as good as a passer in this year’s playoff tournament, and he struggled early in 2019, but the junior-to-be was excellent down the stretch of the regular season and showcased tremendous leadership skills in the semifinals against Ohio State.

Lawrence faces high expectations again heading into 2020. That may have been part of the issue this past fall, but another year older and now with a full year of starter experience, he appears more equipped to deliver.

Having Etienne back will certainly help. Including the postseason, Etienne rushed for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 7.8 yards per carry. That average was tops among the 50 running backs in the country with at least 190 carries.

Etienne returning to school for his senior season is reminiscent of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell all coming back for their final year. Etienne could have been a top draft pick this spring -- Mel Kiper Jr. ranked him as the No. 4 running back in the class -- but it sounds as if he has unfinished business to attend to at Clemson.

“I look forward to earning my degree from this great university and continuing to fight with my brothers on the team to make you proud during the 2020 season,” Etienne wrote in a post on Twitter.

Maybe Etienne doesn’t have the same impact as those guys, but clearly, Clemson is creating a culture where it’s “cool” to stick around for four years. That’s what happens when the head coach makes the culture fun from the very start.

Assistant coaches want to stay put in that culture too. For the first time in half a decade, Clemson will lose a coordinator -- co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott is heading to South Florida as head coach -- but fellow co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott will return along with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who is now the highest-paid assistant coach in college football with Aranda moving to become the head coach at Baylor. Clemson will replace Scott with first-year coach and alum Tyler Grisham.

Clemson is losing wide receiver Tee Higgins, who was first in receiving touchdowns and third in receiving yards and yards per catch in the ACC last year, but the return of junior-to-be Justyn Ross will offset that loss. Ross had more catches and yards than Higgins during the playoffs and yet still has plenty to prove. He posted 11 catches for 123 yards and no touchdowns combined versus LSU and Ohio State.

Defensively, Clemson has some questions to answer. The Tigers were elite again on defense, but with all due respect to senior defensive back Tanner Muse, who led the team with four interceptions, and junior linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who posted a team-high 8.0 sacks, Clemson lacked a true defensive playmaker. Even if one considers those two “playmakers,” Clemson has to replace both of them anyway.

However, no program is more capable of filling holes from their departed players than Clemson. The Tigers are adding three 5-star prospects from the 2020 class to their defensive line alone and another 5-star kid to the secondary. Not to mention, Clemson had 80 freshmen and sophomores on the 2019 roster.

Sophomore-to-be Tyler Davis posted 6.5 sacks and fellow rising sophomore defensive back Derion Kendick had five pass breakups during their freshmen seasons. Both have the opportunity to be much better in their second years.

No wonder Clemson sits atop most of the “way too early 2020 Top 25” at No. 1. There’s a lot to like with who the program has coming back and arriving in the next class.

This doesn’t have anything to do with their ranking, but there’s plenty of like with Clemson’s 2020 schedule too. The ACC will release its football slate Wednesday, but the Tigers already know they are playing the Atlantic Division, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Akron and The Citadel.

Notre Dame on the road on Nov. 7 is, by far, the toughest matchup. An ACC Championship Game rematch with Virginia could be a difficult game, but that contest will be at Clemson.

The rest of the slate appears to be a cakewalk on paper. That doesn’t mean Clemson won’t get tripped somewhere as it did during the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons, but the “easier” schedule on paper is conducive to the Tigers getting right back into the playoffs and playing for another title.

Clemson may have lost last week, but the Tigers still appear to be the team to beat in 2020.