Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 1 Clemson

Yahoo Sports

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season Saturday. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame | No. 8 Texas | No. 7 Michigan | No. 6 LSU | No. 5 Ohio State | No. 4 Oklahoma | No. 3 Georgia | No. 2 Alabama

No. 1 Clemson

2018 record: 15-0

Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense

What can Trevor Lawrence do in year 2 at Clemson? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
What can Trevor Lawrence do in year 2 at Clemson? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

An offense that’s even better?

Clemson has put up points in bunches during Dabo Swinney’s tenure. Clemson has averaged more than 30 points per game in all but one of Swinney’s 11 years with the school. That figure jumped to 44.3 points per game during last season’s undefeated run.

To put that into perspective, Clemson scored fewer than 30 points on just three occasions. And 27 points — in wins over Boston College and Syracuse — were the fewest points the team scored in any game in 2018. Fifty-six college football teams averaged fewer than 27 points per game last season.

Oh, and the 44 points Clemson scored in the 44-16 national title beatdown of Alabama? That was the most points Nick Saban’s Alabama has given up since a 45-21 loss in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.

Things could get even better for the Tigers offense in 2019. Seriously.

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Eight starters are back on offense. The loss of four-year starter Mitch Hyatt at left tackle is big, but so is Jackson Carman. The freshman got some valuable playing time in 2018 and was a five-star recruit and the No. 2 tackle in the recruiting class of 2018. So it goes at Clemson these days. Key figures get replaced by highly-touted recruits.

The loss of WR Hunter Renfrow will be felt, too. But while Renfrow will go down as one of the most iconic players in Clemson history, the Tigers will do just fine without him either. Did you see Justyn Ross’ performance in the College Football Playoff?

Ross had a ridiculous 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman in 2018. (via ESPN)
Ross had a ridiculous 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman in 2018. (via ESPN)

We also somehow made it this far into a Clemson preview without mentioning QB Trevor Lawrence, who completed 65 percent of his passes and threw for 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a true freshman last season. It’s reasonable to think that Lawrence can’t sustain that level of TD-to-INT ratio, but it’s also reasonable to think he’ll get even better with a full offseason of practicing with Clemson’s No. 1 offense.

The Tigers could seriously score at least 50 points on five or more occasions in 2019.

Another reload on defense

Three Clemson defensive linemen were taken in the top 17 of the 2019 NFL draft. DE Clelin Ferrell went No. 4 to the Oakland Raiders. DT Christian Wilkins was drafted by the Miami Dolphins at No. 13. And DT Dexter Lawrence — suspended for the College Football Playoff because of a positive drug test from an apparent tainted supplement — went No. 17 to the New York Giants.

Three players from the same position group getting drafted that high is remarkable. What’s also remarkable is the talent that Clemson will have to replace them. There’s five-star 2018 freshmen Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry and a host of other highly-rated recruits. But more on that later in the preview.

In addition to replacing the entire starting defensive line, Clemson also will break in two new linebackers with the departures of Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph. But leading tackler Isaiah Simmons is back to anchor a group that should feature veterans James Skalski and Chad Smith.

Where Clemson doesn’t have to worry about much replacing is in the secondary. Three of four starters are back, including corner AJ Terrell and safeties K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse.

“We've suffered a few losses since I've been there,” Muse said at ACC media days. “I hate losing more than anything. Just having that bitter taste in my mouth. I always think back of those times, how it felt, how bad it was. That always drives me to continue to get better, continue to bring the guys along where they don't have to feel what we felt in previous years.”

Keep dominating the ACC

Clemson hasn’t lost much in the ACC lately. Swinney has a conference record of 73-17 in his time at Clemson and it’s even more lopsided in recent years. The Tigers have lost just eight ACC games in the last eight seasons and haven’t lost multiple conference games in a season since 2014.

There shouldn’t be multiple ACC losses in 2019.

Sure, it’s easy for SEC homers to say that Clemson’s had an easy road over the last few years, but that’s a lazy take. Alabama hasn’t lost multiple games in a season since 2014. And we all know how Clemson’s gone toe-to-toe with Alabama in the College Football Playoff era.

You win the games in front of you. And Clemson’s not shying away from big non-conference matchups either. Texas A&M visits on Sept. 7 and there’s the annual game against South Carolina at the end of the season. If you’re looking for a barometer to compare the top teams in the SEC West and Clemson, you’ve got a two-game sample in 2019. The Tigers should fare just fine in it.

Biggest game: Florida State (Oct. 12)

Quite frankly, the biggest game may be the matchup with the Aggies. It’s one of the highlights of Week 2 and A&M gave Clemson a run in 2018 when Kelly Bryant was still the Tigers’ starting QB.

But Florida State gets the nod here because it’s a game that should determine the ACC Atlantic. Clemson will probably be a double-digit favorite. And if the Tigers convert on that it should be smooth sailing to the ACC Championship Game.

One of the 24 rushing TDs that Travis Etienne scored in 2018. (Getty Images)
One of the 24 rushing TDs that Travis Etienne scored in 2018. (Getty Images)

Impact player

RB Travis Etienne

Etienne gets his first mention of the preview here. That’s how loaded Clemson’s offense is. All he did as a sophomore was rush for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns. Not bad.

Asking for a repeat of that production in 2019 may be a little much. But there’s no reason why Etienne can’t challenge 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns again in 2019. And with No. 2 RB Lyn-J Dixon also averaging over eight yards a carry in 2018, Clemson can afford to keep Etienne’s rushing attempts below 200 if it wants.

Either way, Etienne will be monstrously productive again this season.

Biggest question mark

From Larry Williams at Rivals’ The biggest question mark all offseason, as Dabo Swinney has acknowledged, is defensive tackle. There's just no other way around it after you lose not just Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, but also the guy who subbed for Lawrence in the playoff and was plenty disruptive in Albert Huggins.

The Tigers are plenty talented on the interior, but Wilkins and Lawrence were otherworldly talented as they pillaged opposing backfields and were regularly in the lap of quarterbacks right after the snap. Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams are the successors, and both missed spring practice while recovering from surgeries. Pinckney stood out during August camp, while Williams might need some time to put it all together. The guy to watch here is freshman Tyler Davis, who enrolled in January and has been a regular sensation during practice. We wouldn't be surprised if he starts at some point in 2019. There will be a drop-off at defensive tackle, but the Tigers still should be pretty good here.

Tiger Illustrated’s breakout player

LB James Skalski

Brent Venables lost six of his linebackers from last season, including starters Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar. Yet you don't detect a great deal of concern from him at this position, and a big reason is Skalski. The fourth-year junior redshirted last season even though he might've been the best linebacker on the team exiting 2018 spring practice. Venables and Dabo Swinney firmly believe he's about to become an all-conference type of player as the quarterback of the defense. He's a more athletic version of Ben Boulware, and Boulware was pretty darned good.

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Isaiah Simmons led the Tigers in tackles in 2018. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Isaiah Simmons led the Tigers in tackles in 2018. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

LB Isaiah Simmons

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: Clemson is loaded with NFL talent in several spots, although its two most ballyhooed prospects — QB Trevor Lawrence and WR Justyn Ross — are not eligible for the NFL draft until 2021. For the coming draft cycle, there is one player we think stands above the others. As good as RB Travis Etienne, WR Tee Higgins and CB A.J. Terrell are, it’s Simmons who might have the best chance to be drafted highest next year.

Simmons is a converted safety who has shifted to more of a linebacker spot, but pegging the redshirt junior into one role only limits how much this versatile playmaker can do. He’s a rare athletic specimen at 6-4 and 230 pounds, and all you need is one look of Simmons covering slot receivers and carrying athletic tight ends and backs down the field to know you simply don’t see players such as this in college football but once every few years.

Can he tackle? Stack and shed blockers? How Simmons fares closer to the line of scrimmage will be fascinating in terms of projecting what the best way to use him at the next level should be. But even some missed run fills and tackles and a lack of true pop as a tackler won’t stop us from imagining the possibilities of Simmons as an NFL chess piece in a league where his coverage ability will be highly sought after.

Fantasy sleeper

WR Amari Rodgers

It’s hard to find someone that you can consider a sleeper on Clemson’s offense. But we’ll go with Rodgers here because of Renfrow’s departure. Rodgers seems best-suited to take over the route tree that Renfrow had in 2019. He scored four touchdowns a season ago which, oddly, was three more touchdowns than Renfrow had.

Clemson’s running attack may be too good and jump balls to Ross and Tee Higgins too easy for Rodgers to get many red zone receiving opportunities. But he could put up 70 catches this season and is worth a flier.

Over/under projection

Over (11.5)

Here’s the fun thing that happens when you’re the defending national champions and play in a relatively easy conference. Your over/under total is the choice between an undefeated season and one that isn’t. We’re going with the undefeated season. Clemson will sure remember what happened in 2017 when it visits the Carrier Dome on Sept. 14 and the only other tough conference road game looks to be at NC State. Betting the under is probably the safer bet, but let’s get wild.

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