Fifth-ranked Clemson will begin defense of its 2016 National Championship today at noon against Kent State. The Golden Flashes are coming off a 3-9 season that saw them decimated with injuries at key positions such as quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
The Tigers on the other hand have to replace six starters on offense, including at quarterback where they lost two-time Heisman Trophy Finalist Deshaun Watson. Junior Kelly Bryant beat out freshmen Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson to earn the start this afternoon as the new quarterback.
Defensively, Clemson returns seven starters from a unit that led the ACC in total yards allowed and scoring defense and ranked in the top 10 nationally in both as well. The unit is led by a defensive line that is considered one of the best in the country thanks to the return of defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence as well as defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant.
Clemson’s defensive front vs. Kent State quarterback Nick Holley: A former wide receiver, Nick Holley moved to quarterback last season because of injuries to the quarterback position. He’s as tough of a player as you’re going to see. He really made a difference for the Golden Flashes at that position in 2016 and played well down the stretch. They’re going to put the ball in his hands a lot by using a lot of zone-read principles, a lot of empty packages, a lot of jet sweeps and motions. With all the eye-candy, Clemson’s defensive line will have to be disciplined and stay within its techniques and try not to do too much. Look for the Tigers to try and take advantage of the right side of the Golden Flashes offensive line which is small and inexperienced at right tackle with sophomore Mike Marinelli (6-3, 281). As a whole there is not much depth on Kent State’s offensive line and the Tigers should be able to wear then down as the game moves along, causing issues for Holley and the rest of the skill players. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s linebacker vs. Kent State running back Justin Rankin: The Golden Flashes want to get the ball on the perimeter, so Clemson will have to do a great job of setting the edge, because they’ve got some speed. The receivers can run, and running back Justin Rankin is a very impressive player. The first play from the line of scrimmage against Alabama last year, he took it about 50-plus yards. Once he got through the line of scrimmage, he was able to pull away. Rankin led them in rushing last year, but also led them in receptions. He is a very dynamic guy in the backfield. Kent State goes empty a lot, so he catches a lot of passes. Rankin is talented enough to keep the Clemson linebackers busy all afternoon. They will have to move from sideline to sideline and try not to get caught up in the wash or fooled by all the misdirection and motions the Golden Flashes are going to use. With Clemson playing an inexperienced linebacker in the middle, looked for Kent State to try and test Tre Lamar in the middle as well as try to get Rankin in one-on-one situations in the passing game. However, Clemson has two veteran linebackers in strongside backer Dorian O’Daniel and weakside starter Kendall Joseph. Both should more than make up for Lamar’s inexperience in the middle and are more than capable of shutting down Kent State’s zone-read scheme. Also, let’s not forget Lamar is a very talented linebacker. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s offensive line vs. Kent Sate’s defensive line: With all the talk about how good Clemson’s defensive line is, the Tigers’ offensive line is sometimes forgotten about. Clemson returns four starters from a unit last year that led the ACC in the fewest sacks allowed in the regular season. Led by All-ACC players Mitch Hyatt (6-5, 305) at left tackle and Tyrone Crowder (6-2, 340) at right guard, the Tigers are also very big up front and have solid depth all across the board. They will be facing a defensive front that is small to say the least. Kent State’s defensive line goes 261, 251, 295 and 243 across the front as it will try to combat an offensive line that is 305, 330, 305, 340 and 315 down the line. Look for the Tigers to run a lot of power, maybe even quarterback power at times with Bryant as it tries to wear down the interior of a Kent State front four that will not likely be big enough or deep enough to handle the wear and tear of a 60-minute game as well as the Tigers’ up-tempo offense. Advantage: Clemson
The Bottom line: Clemson has just too much of everything at every position for the Golden Flashes to handle for 60 minutes. This should be a perfect game for the Tigers to celebrate their national championship from last season with the fans as well as break in its new offensive players like Bryant, running back C.J. Fuller and tight end Milan Richard. Fans should also get to see freshmen wide receivers Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers and running back Travis Etienne at some point as well.
Prediction: Clemson 52, Kent State 14