Clemson’s bid for a fourth straight trip to the College Football Playoff is going to rest heavily on the defensive line’s performance. And that’s a litmus test that should be just fine for Tiger fans, because this front four is as good as it gets. Remember the names Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant on the ends, along with Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins on the interior. You’re going to watching them all play in the NFL soon, and you’re going to hear a lot about them on Saturdays in 2018.
For anyone in their mid-50s or older, this defensive front should awake memories of the Minnesota Vikings’ great Purple People Eaters of the 1970s, or the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome of that same era. With one exception—the ‘18 Clemson defensive line probably has more depth. Two of the program’s top three recruits play on the edge and coordinator Brent Venables is going to run waves of fresh bodies at opposing offenses. You won’t be able to block them and you won’t be able to wear them down. It’s close to being completely unfair.
What will keep it fair is that Clemson has modest question marks throughout the rest of the lineup. Those start at the quarterback position. Kelly Bryant, the incumbent senior, played with reasonable efficiency last year and is a good runner. In a different situation, there would be no question marks. But Clemson’s situation is now measured against Alabama. In last season’s Playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, the Tide showed that running and game management are not enough to beat an elite team.
Nor is head coach Dabo Swinney stuck with simply making do as best he can with Bryant. We mentioned the defensive line has two of the top three recruits. The third is at quarterback. Trevor Lawrence can provide the Tigers with a genuine downfield threat. Lawrence is virtually certain to see some significant playing time. It seems the main question is whether he completely displaces Bryant or whether Swinney opts for some sort of mix, using Bryant’s legs to keep defenses off balance and then bringing in Lawrence.
There’s a scattering of returning players elsewhere. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt anchors an offensive line that needs to be retooled. Trayvon Mullen at corner is the key player in a secondary that needs rebuilding and is this team’s biggest potential weakness. Of course that presumes opposing quarterbacks will have enough time to throw the football, in which case we refer you back to the top of the article to review the defensive line.
Swinney recruits at an extremely high level, but Clemson’s classes do rank a notch behind what comes in at Alabama, Ohio State or Georgia. It’s a testament to Swinney’s great coaching—I think he does the best combination of recruit and develop anywhere in the country—that the Tigers play at the level they do. But it’s also the reason why I think Clemson’s 9-2 odds to win the national championship are a little short. By comparison, Ohio State is 8-1 and Georgia’s 9-1, with Alabama the 2-1 favorite. I really don’t see these Tigers are twice as likely to win it all as the Buckeyes or Bulldogs.
But for now, all that matters is getting some early momentum and getting into the Playoff. Clemson’s still several lengths ahead of the rest of the ACC and until they lose two games, they’ve earned the right for fans to simply assume they’ll be one of football’s Final Four again. The defensive line will see to that.