Can Dabo Sweeney and his Clemson Tigers repeat the magic from 2016 and make it to another playoff and go back to back? That depends on his quarterback play. Clemson lost one of the greatest college quarterbacks in the history of the game as the superb Deshaun Watson finished off his illustrious career with a national championship on a last second TD pass to Hunter Renfrow to capture the coveted prize. Deshaun is now with the Houston Texans in hopes of leading talented Texans to greater heights and a Vince Lombardi Trophy in the future. More than one for that matter. Deshaun was exceptional and an amazing success story.
As for the 2017 team, the Tigers have material all over the field, but in order to make the playoff and win it all, they need to develop a quarterback who can successfully run the offense, make plays consistently and take care of the football. There are 4 candidates.
Kelly Bryant, a 6'3", 215 pound junior, got the start in the spring game. Bryant can really create plays with his legs, but needs to sharpen up his passing. He needs to be more consistent with all his throws and become a better downfield passer. Zerrick Cooper, a 6'2", 205 pound redshirt freshman, is another exceptional runner who showed some promise in the spring game with his arm, but needs some polish passing the ball as well. Tucker Israel is a 5'10", 180 pound sophomore who is on the smaller size, but has a pretty good arm. And then there is 99, 5 star freshman Hunter Johnson, 6'4", 200 pounder (ranking by 247 sports), who has a super arm, pretty good mobility and a chance to be special. But Johnson needs some work in all phases of playing the position. So Sweeney and his co-offensive coordinators, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, have a lot of work ahead of them to get these guys ready for Clemson's September 2nd opener against Kent State at Death Valley. But there's no doubt they'll put in the work and so will their players. If they can develop these guys and get a bona fide starter and backup the talent around the signal caller and on the defensive side of the ball are off the charts good.
The offensive line will be led by left tackle Mitch Hyatt (6'5", 295), who isn't massive, but a powerful, physical player and a leader. Left guard Taylor Hearn (6'5", 325) gives the left side an impressive, potentially dominating combination. The line returns 4 of 5 starters and there is quality depth behind them as Dabo's recruiting has been sensational.
Running back will be manned by three talented players. Returnees C.J. Fuller (5'10", 215 Jr), Adam Choice (5'9", 210) and Tavien Foster (5'11", 210) are three backs Dabo thinks can all play on Sundays. Running back is stellar and 2017, 92, 4 star Travis Etienne (5'11", 210) is coming in for fall camp. Wide receiver is excellent with junior Deon Cain (6'1", 210), who pulled in 38 passes for 724 yards and 9 TDs, leading the charges. Ray Ray McCloud is a playmaker out wide as well. McCloud, a 5'10", 180 pound junior caught 49 passes for 472 yards and 2 TDs. He's explosive, a playmaker, like Cain. And the awesome Renfrow, the 5'11", 180 pound redshirt junior, who caught 44 passes for 495 yards and 6 TDs and was a key part of the national championship victory and also the year before in that amazing game with the Crimson Tide, is back and will be a key target.
So whoever the quarterback is, he will have a super arsenal to work with. Stellar tight end Jordan Leggett is gone to the NFL, so the Tigers will need to replace him too. Juniors Garrett Williams (6'3", 245) and Cannon Smith (6'5", 265) will compete for that spot.
On defense, the front for stellar defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be dominant again. Clemson is becoming known as d line U along with Bama and Auburn is starting to make its case for that moniker as well. Junior defensive end Christian Wilkins (6'4", 310), sophomore defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and sophomore defensive end Clelin Ferrell (6'5", 265) are all 3 potential All Americans. They are dominating players with tremendous size, toughness and physciality. They can blow up the running game and get to the quarterback. All 3 are superb. There is excellent depth on the d line as well. Linebacker looks terrific with redshirt freshman Shaq Smith (6'2", 240), junior J.D. Davis (6'2",225) and depth. The secondary may be the biggest strength on this team. Corners, junior Mark Fields (5'10", 180) and senior Ryan Carter (5'9", 180), are experienced players who are tremendous in coverage and can make game changing interceptions. Sophomore strong safety Denzel Johnson (6'0", 195) and junior free safety Van Smith (5'11", 195) are stellar also. Depth is good in the secondary and all over the defense.
Kicking game looks solid with Greg Huegel and Alex Spence handling the kicking and punting duties respectively. McCloud returns punts, and can take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Fuller and Feaster are explosive in the kick return game.
This is a really good football team, but a team that has to develop a quarterback if they want to be exceptional, make the playoff and advance in that.
The key games, even though they're all key in college football, are Auburn, Saturday, Sept. 9th @ home, Sept 16th @ Louisville, Sept. 30th @ Virginia Tech, Oct. 28th, November 4th @ NC State, @ home vs Georgia Tech, Nov,. 11, @ home vs Florida State in what could be a colossal game in the 2017 season nationally, and @ South Carolina, Saturday, Nov. 25th. Will Muschamp will have a much improved team and South Carolina is ready to extract some revenge against Clemson after losing to the Tigers the last three years, including a 56-7 drubbing last season @ Death Valley. The Palmetto Bowl should be compelling.
Prediction for the Tigers in 2017
This is an extremely talented football team. Double digit victories are certainly attainable and a chance to make the playoff a possibility. But I see some issues at quarterback preventing Clemson from making the semifinals. They should have a good team, 10 wins and a New Year's Six Bowl in the Orange or the Peach Bowl, the semifinal playoff games are at the Rose and Sugar Bowls respectively Jan.1, 2018, but I don't see them making the playoff this season. Still, the team should have another outstanding year, and with Johnson maturing under center and with 2018 .9998 5 star Trevor Lawrence (6'6", 196), Clemson will certainly be ready for the playoff in 2018. Two thousand seventeen is not totally out of the question. They have a couple of tough road games @ Louisville and @ Virginia Tech. Winning those 2 would be tremendous. Auburn @ home will be extremely challenging as the Auburn Tigers have found a talented signal caller in Jarrett Stidham, to go along with exceptional talent around him. FSU is a superb looking team. South Carolina on the road to finish off the season will be challenging. I like 9 to 10 wins, depending on quarterback play and injuries. This program is spectacular and may find a way to make the playoff, but the quarterback issue is the factor that will keep them out this season. Still, Dabo Sweeney will field another very good football team at Clemson.