With two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne back in the fold at running back and with potentially the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft in Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, Clemson is expected to have one of the more dynamic offenses in college football this coming season.
With the exception of Notre Dame, it initially looked as if the Tigers would have very little resistance moving the football against its 2020 opponents. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and that has now changed.
Instead of playing some of the worst defenses in the country (based on last year’s numbers), the Tigers now play three of the top 50 defenses from the 2019 season.
On Wednesday, the ACC announced a new football model for the 2020 season, which has Clemson losing poor defensive teams such as Louisville, NC State and most likely Akron. Those teams were replaced by squads that have some of the best defenses in the country in Miami, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.
Last year, Louisville ranked next to last in the ACC and 102nd nationally in total defense, yielding 440.0 yards per game. The Cardinals also ranked 110th in scoring defense (33.4 pts/game). Akron was 83rd in total defense, allowing 414.0 yards per game and 122nd in scoring defense (36.3). NC State ranked 77th in total defense, giving up 399.0 yards and 82nd in scoring (30.1).
In 2019, Miami finished 13th in total defense (309.8 yds/game) and 23rd in scoring defense (20.2 pts./game). The Hurricanes also ranked sixth in tackles for loss (8.3 per game) and seventh in sacks (3.5 per game).
Miami returns just five players from last year’s defense, but they get back senior defensive tackle Jonathan Ford and senior linebacker Zack McCloud. They also have one of the best secondaries in the ACC, led by safety Gurvan Hall and corner A.J. Blades.
Outside of Clemson, the Panthers might have the best defense coming back in the ACC. Pitt ranked 15th in total defense (312.9) and 36 in scoring defense (22.5) last season, while also ranking second in sacks (3.9) and 10th in tackles for loss (7.9).
Pitt returns eight starters on defense, including three of its four starters on the defensive line. The Panthers are led up front by defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman and safety Paris Ford. Both are First-Team All-ACC and All-American candidates.
Virginia Tech’s numbers are not as strong and they did lose cornerback Caleb Farley, who announced on Wednesday he was going to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns and begin preparing for the NFL Draft. He is the first major college player to announce this decision.
However, the Hokies still return nine other starters on defense, a unit that got better as the year went along in 2019. They ranked 42nd in total defense (363.3) last season and 46 in scoring defense (24.7). But they were 18th nationally at sacking the quarterback (2.9).
Granted, the Tigers had the most prolific offense in school history in 2019 and this year’s unit is supposed to be equally as good. However, the Tigers do have to replace four starters on the offensive line and they recently lost All-ACC receiver Justyn Ross for the season due to spinal surgery in June.
Clemson is still going to be the favorite in all three games and the Tigers still have more overall talent than anyone in the ACC, plus Miami and Pitt both come to Clemson. However, the Tigers have to visit Virginia Tech and the Hokies are never easy to beat in Blacksburg.
The Tigers might be the better team, but things sure did get a lot harder for the offense to move the football in 2020.
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