Final Grades of the 2017 football season
The 2017 football season at Clemson may not have ended the way last year did, but the Tigers nonetheless had another great season under head coach Dabo Swinney.
Clemson earned its third straight trip to the College Football Playoff as it cemented itself as one of college football’s elite programs. The Tigers also won their third straight ACC Championship, recorded their seventh straight 10-win season with a 12-2 record and beat rival South Carolina for a fourth straight year.
On the offensive side of the ball, Clemson was as balanced as anyone in the country all year, but at the end of the season, the Tigers started to struggle at moving the ball consistently.
Here is how the Tigers graded at their individual positions on offense this year.
In his first year as a starter, Kelly Bryant did better than anyone expected. Yes, his numbers were not great in the Alabama game, but how much of that blame really deserves to fall on his shoulders. As a starter, Bryant went 12-2 overall and 12-1 in games he was able to finish. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 2,802 yards. He had 13 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions. He also finished third on the team with 665 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Not a bad year for a first-time starter. The backup quarterback position was an interesting one at Clemson all year. Was it Zerrick Cooper or was it Hunter Johnson? Cooper finished the year completing 25-of-41 passes for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Johnson was 21-of-27 for 234 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. I gave an A-minus because Bryant did a great job managing the system all year and was very consistent, which is what the coaches were looking for. However, the big plays in the downfield passing game were limited this year and in the end was the downfall for the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl.
Running back: B
Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster were without a doubt Clemson’s two best running backs in 2017. Etienne led the Tigers with 766 yards and 13 touchdowns, while averaging 7.2 yards per carry on 107 touches. Feaster was not too far behind. He was second on the team with 669 yards and 7 touchdowns, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry on 107 touches. When these two were on, Clemson’s running game was very hard to slow down. However, Clemson got in its own way and limited these two the touches they deserved. I understood having the four-back system at the start of the season, but once it became clear that Feaster and Etienne were the two best backs on the roster, Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller should not have been taking away as many as carries from Etienne and Feaster as they did. It makes you wonder how good the running game could have really been had Etienne and Feaster been the exclusive running backs in the system.
Pass catchers: B
It was sort of an up and down year for Clemson’s wide receivers this season. There were some good moments for sure, but there was also inconsistency as well. Of course some of the falls on the style of play at quarterback. Bryant is not the gunslinger Deshaun Watson was so by default the wide receivers numbers were going to go down. However, some of the blame on why the receiving corps was not more productive is not exclusive to the arm of the quarterback. For instance, think of the kind of year Deon Cain would have had if he had not dropped as many passes as he did. Cain led the Tigers with 734 yards and 6 touchdowns on 58 catches, but he left so much more on the field. Hunter Renfrow led the team with 60 receptions and had 602 yards and 3 scores, while Ray-Ray McCloud had 49 catches for 503 yards and just 1 touchdown. Freshman Tee Higgins did emerge as a big-play threat towards the end of the season as he averaged 20.3 yards per catch on 17 receptions. The biggest drawback on offense this year came at tight end, where the Tigers were unable to replace the exploits of Jordan Leggett. Milan Richard and Cannon Smith did their best, but they just don’t have the big-play capabilities and route running skills that Leggett possessed. They never really challenged the defense in the middle of the field.
Offensive line: B
This unit was one of the Tigers’ strongest groups all season, but they finished the season with a dud against the Alabama defense in the Sugar Bowl. Still, it was a successful season for the big guys up front. Mitch Hyatt was an All-American at left tackle. Justin Falcinelli, in his first year as a starting center, earned First-Team All-ACC honors, as did right guard Tyrone Crowder. Left Guard Taylor Hearn was also an All-ACC selection. For the first time in a long time, Clemson did have three players run for more than 600 yards and the team had a school-record 40 rushing touchdowns. Clemson finished the year averaging 194.1 yards per game rushing. So the numbers overall were pretty good. However, the Tigers gave up 31 sacks in 2017, 10 more than they allowed in 2016, and that is playing one less game. Granted, not all of those can be charged to the offensive line, but the line was responsible for a lot of them. The right tackle position was never resolved and was the weakest link in Clemson’s offense and it was exposed over and over again throughout the season. In the last two games of the season, when facing quality defensive fronts in Miami and Alabama, the Tigers ran for just 77 and 64 yards, while Bryant was sacked nine times.