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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Clemson Tigers

CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Opponents. Georgia will face at least twelve of them on the field of play this fall. And we’re going to preview every one of them, beginning this morning with the Clemson Tigers.

Location: Clemson, South Carolina

Home Stadium: Memorial Stadium, which seats 81,500 and is built around a sad little rock that’s been in the family for decades and in the process become an heirloom. Like your Uncle Harold, but it showers more often.

2020 record: 10-2. The Country Gentlemen won the ACC by beating Notre Dame 34-10 in the ACC Championship Game before falling 49-24 to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

Head Coach: William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney, a grown man who despite having two perfectly respectable big boy names still insists that you call him “Dabo.”

Notable alumni: The League actor Rob Huebel, indie singer/songwriter Dave Dondero, and a bunch of South Carolina politicians mainly qualified for office because they live or lived in South Carolina and went to Clemson.

Some guys old, some guys new.

Dabo’s Tigers once again found themselves in the College Football Playoff In 2020, their sixth straight appearance in the affair. This had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they play in the ACC have to beat the likes of Boston College, Wake Forest, and Syracuse to get there.

Okay, maybe that plays a small part in It. But nevertheless it is an impressive achievement. Gone however are many of the players who led that effort, most notably top overall draft pick QB Trevor Lawrence.

It’s a big loss. Lawrence started most of the last three seasons, leading the Tigers to a 34-2 records, throwing for 10,098 yards and 90 touchdowns, and providing steady leadership at the center of the Tigers’ cadre of skill players.

Also gone is featured tailback Travis Etienne, another stalwart of the Clemson attack during its recent run. And offensive coordinator Tony Elliott will also need to replace receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, who finished #1 and 2 in receiving yards last season (Etienne was third). Those three accounted for 58% of Clemson’s receiving yards in 2020. Replacing them will be critical, though (unfortunately for us) maybe not as difficult as you might expect.

Up front the Fightin’ Dabos return three starters from a unit that was inconsistent against good competition last season (34 yards rushing on 33 attempts against the Fighting Irish, 44 yards on 22 tries against the Buckeyes).

Replacing Lawrence will be former blue chipper D.J. Uiagalelei. The stocky (6’4, 260) sophomore filled in admirably for Lawrence last season when the latter was forced out by COVID infection. In two starts he threw for 781 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He now has a full offseason at the controls and could be a Heisman finalist if he gets some assistance from his supporting cast.

And despite the losses from 2020, it remains a talented cast. Receiver Justyn Ross returns from injury having caught almost 1900 yards worth of passes in 2018 and 2019. 6’3, 190 pound sophomore EJ Williams is a matchup problem, capable of making some extraordinary plays. Junior Frank Ladson caught 18 passes for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns last season and returns looking for a more prominent role.

And while he was little-used as a freshman, sophomore Ajou Ajou (6’3, 215) has drawn solid reviews in camp. And tight end Braden Galloway is actually the team’s leading returning receiver. So while Clemson lacks proven starting receivers, the Tigers have a solid corps of guys who’ve played a lot of big time football. Some or all of them are likely to do big things in 2021.

Senior Lyn-J Dixon (42 rushes for 190 yards in 2020) and sophomore Kobe Pace (18 attempts for 75) are vying to replace Etienne in the backfield. While both have potential, this is one area where I could see the Tigers taking a step back. That’s no slight on Dixon and Pace. Etienne was however one of the most explosive and versatile weapons in recent College Football memory. I’m not sure you just plug in someone who can do what he did. Also keep an eye on freshman five star recruit Will Shipley, who could see time in the slot as well.

But De-Same De-Fense

If the coaches from Auburn with a Lake are looking for a few new names on offense, they’ve got a pretty good idea who’ll be starting on defense. Unfortunately for the ‘Dawgs, it will be the same guys who made up the nation’s 18th ranked scoring defense in 2020. At least ten out of eleven of them. Obviously cornerback Derion Kendrick is in Athens now. But otherwise defensive coordinator Brent Venables has his entire starting defense back, including every member of arguably the nation’s top defensive line.

Sophomore Bryan Bresee is perhaps the best of the bunch. Bresee earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020 after notching 33 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and 4 sacks.

Myles Murphy led the team in tackles for loss (11.5) as a freshman, and K.J. Henry added 6.5. Xavier Thomas had an up-and-down 2020, but coaches have raved about his focus and effort so far. Junior Justin Mascoll and sophomore Kevin Swint (cross-training at linebacker) round out a deep, deep rotation that will be a tough matchup for a UGA offensive line that’s still coming together.

Veteran linebackers James Skalski and Jake Venables return, as does sophomore Trenton Simpson, third on the team in tackles for loss in 2020. Simpson added 4 sacks as a freshman, and has the potential to be an All-ACC performer. Sixth year senior Nolan Turner (54 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 3 interceptions in 2020) returns at safety, and veterans Andrew Booth (27 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble return for a TD), Sheridan Jones, and Mario Goodrich return at corner.

Well, isn’t that Special?

The Country Gentlemen return punter Will Spiers and placekicker B.T. Potter on special teams, which doesn’t hurt either. And with so many skill position weapons there’s no doubt the Tigers will remain dangerously deep at kick returner as well.

The Bottom Line

Conventional wisdom seems to be that these two offenses will put up a bunch of points on September 4th in Charlotte. But first games are often a bit of a cluster for offenses, especially those facing talented, veteran defenses, which both teams most definitely will.

To my mind the key matchups in this one are the young UGA offensive line versus the exceptional Clemson defensive front and.....the young Clemson offensive line versus the exceptional Georgia defensive front.

An ancillary concern to that one will be how the quarterbacks handle pressure when it does come. And it will come, for both JT Daniels and DJ Uiagaleilei. Uiagaleilei is built like a battle ship, and will be frustrating to bring down. At the same time, it will be interesting to see if he tries to do too much with second chances. Georgia has a defense that can make you pay for late decision making (ask Bo Nix), so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the new guy try to do too much in a big game atmosphere.

At the same time, JT Daniels struggled some last season under pressure, it appeared because he still wasn’t 100% Mobile following knee surgery. My fear is that the mobility we saw from him last year is the mobility he will have going forward. That would require both Daniels knowing when to throw it away and avoid sacks, as well as Todd Monken scheming him out of situations where Clemson can bring 6 defenders without paying a price.

And a final thought. As good as that Clemson defensive front looks on paper, and as fearsome as they were against the pass in 2020, they struggled a little when teams decided to square up and run the dang ball. If Georgia can do that, keeping the defense off the field at critical times, I like the Bulldogs’ chances. Games like this early in the season sometimes turn into conditioning contests where one team just doesn’t have the juice by the end of the game (see UGA/Clemson 2014).

I hate to make a score prediction here, because as the above should make clear there are several ways this game could turn. But ultimately I think Clemson lost more from last year’s squad than people realize in terms of production that will be difficult to replace. They’re going to be a buzzsaw tipping through the ACC for the remainder of the year, but on this night, not so much.

Score prediction: Georgia 34, Clemson 30.

I’d also note that there would be a temptation to view a Georgia win over a highly-ranked Clemson as an indication that this is finally the Bulldogs’ year. Let’s not get too crazy with that talk, either. This contest is of great use to both teams in gearing up for conference play, but I don’t think either team is really going to look in December how they look in September, and for two schools hunting for a national title, it’s December that matters.

Go ‘Dawgs!!!