Last year, Clemson leaned on the strength of its defense, especially early on.
While Dabo Swinney and the Clemson coaching staff played out what was going to happen at quarterback between Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence, the defense controlled things for the Tigers during the first six weeks of the season.
Never was that more evident than in the Syracuse game. With Bryant gone and Lawrence injured, Clemson leaned on its defense to stay in the game.
After giving up 16 points and more than 200 yards in the first half, the defense buckled down in the last 30 minutes and allowed just 90 second half yards. The Orange’s only points came off a muffed punt which set up a short touchdown drive.
With the defense dominating, the Tigers leaned on Travis Etienne and the running game to get back in the game and then backup quarterback Chase Brice made the play of the year with a 20-yard fourth-down completion to Tee Higgins to keep the game-winning drive alive.
After the Tigers survived Syracuse the offense got rolling with Lawrence and company. The Tigers went on to beat Wake Forest by 60 points, NC State by 34, Florida State by 49 and Louisville by 61. Clemson won each of its last 10 games by 20 or more points, including a 28-point win over Alabama in the national championship game.
This year, the roles are reversed. With Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant gone up front, plus Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar at linebacker and Trayvon Mullen at corner, the Tigers have to replace seven starters on defense.
That means Lawrence, along with Etienne and wide receivers Justyn Ross and Higgins will have to pick up right where they left off in Santa Clara, California. The defense, though still talented, will be young and depth at linebacker will be thin, especially with the departure of Shaq Smith.
That’s not good early in the season, especially in Week 2 against a Texas A&M offense that has one of the best rushing attacks in college football and with the way Jimbo Fisher uses his tight ends.
In Week 3, Clemson has to go to Syracuse and face the Orange in the Carrier Dome. That will be a tough challenge for a Clemson offense that has struggled to move the ball and score consistently against the Orange defense the last two years. It also has not helped the Tigers have lost their starting quarterback in the second quarter of both games.
If Clemson can survive the first three weeks of the season without a loss, then it should be able run the table and by the end of the year the defense should be ready for a run in the College Football Playoff.