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Clemson, with Trevor Lawrence, all set for national title run in 2019


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SportsPulse: From Levi’s Stadium, our college football insiders breakdown Clemson’s demolishment of Alabama and if the title game was a passing of the baton from one dynasty to another.
USA TODAY

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The combination of coaching, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a highly gifted collection of skill talent and an uncertain Atlantic Coast Conference makes Clemson a top contender to once again reach the College Football Playoff for the 2019 season. 

Once again, the Tigers’ talented crop of assistant coaches will remain the fold. In defensive coordinator Brent Venables and co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, Clemson has been able to build and maintain matching schemes that have propelled the Tigers into the upper echelon of the Bowl Subdivision.

On offense, the greatest reason for optimism stems from Lawrence, who as a true freshman led the Tigers to another ACC championship and was dominant against Alabama in the national title game. He’ll begin his sophomore season as one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy.

“The sky is the limit and the offense can expand and do more things,” quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter said.

Joining Lawrence on offense will be running back Travis Etienne, himself a top Heisman contender entering his junior season, and a slew of underclassmen at wide receiver. Leading the way in the passing game is junior-to-be Tee Higgins and rising sophomore Justyn Ross, who had a breakout performance in the Cotton Bowl win against Notre Dame.

There will be a few losses on offense to overcome: Mitch Hyatt will leave a hole at left tackle as a departing four-year starter, and the Tigers will miss the steadiness and reliability of wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. As a whole, however, the offense will return enough athleticism and experience to raise the bar after one of the most prolific scoring seasons in program history.

“The pieces around the quarterback are more mature and they’re making more plays for the quarterback,” said Elliott.

But the script will change for Clemson in 2019. Heading into this past season, the Tigers were defined by the defense, specifically the play of a defensive line overflowing with NFL-ready talent. That group will have an entirely new look come spring drills: Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant will graduate and current juniors Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence are expected to forego their final seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. In addition, the Tigers will lose current senior Albert Huggins, a key reserve who took on a starting role during the playoff after Lawrence was suspended for a drug violation.

While the Tigers do return a blossoming talent in rising sophomore Xavier Thomas, the strength of the defense as a whole should shift to the secondary. While several standouts could also opt for the NFL, including safety Tanner Muse and cornerback Trayvon Mullen, the defensive backfield should retain enough talent to rank among the best in the ACC.

The program’s recent track record is reason for optimism: Clemson has ranked in the top five nationally in yards allowed per play four times in the past five seasons. In terms of yards allowed per game, the Tigers haven’t finished outside the top 10 since 2013.

Another bonus is the Tigers’ road to the playoff, which entails going through an ACC that has failed to put forth a realistic challenger for the crown since the end of Jameis Winston’s turn as the starting quarterback at Florida State. More so than any other team in a Power Five league, Clemson stands far above its competition in the race for a conference title.

In fact, the most difficult game could come from its non-conference matchup in September against Texas A&M, which is expected to take another step forward in its second season under Jimbo Fisher.

It adds up to a familiar premise: Clemson as one of just a select few teams — perhaps joined only by Alabama — already slated to be among the strongest contender for a berth in next year’s Playoff. After four successive appearances in a row, anything less might be a disappointment.

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