In a previous post, I broke down Clemson’s regular season schedule and discussed the challenge each opponent could present the Tigers. The season starts with a bang as Clemson an ACC team – Georgia Tech – on a Thursday, then faces Texas A&M in Week 2, and then takes a road trip to Upstate New York to take on a Syracuse it what may be the defacto Atlantic Division championship. While it looks to be a tough start, after Week 3, the Tigers may not play another top 30 team for the reason of the regular season. South Carolina and Florida State (Athlon Sports ranked 32nd and 33rd respectively) are the two biggest remaining obstacles.
While the ACC Coastal champion should be more formidable than Pittsburgh was last year given the upside of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Miami, they’re unlikely to be comparable to the playoff teams. With Clemson’s over/under win total set at 11.5 it’s not too hasty to take a look at some potential playoff opponents and see how Clemson stacks up.
Michigan hasn’t won the Big 10 since 2004, but they’re getting plenty of hype coming into 2019. Jim Harbaugh took over a 5-win team and quickly turned them into a 10-win team. Now that he’s brought Michigan back to relevance, the fans are clamoring for that next step.
Josh Gattis comes over from Alabama to run the offense. He plans to open things up with a no-huddle spread offense, something quite different for Michigan. It’s not so different for QB Shea Patterson though, who played under a similar system at Ole Miss prior to his transfer. Michigan loses their top two RBs and will likely rely heavily on Patterson.
Michigan returns five starters on defense, but two of the departures are Rashan Gary and Devin Bush Jr. It’ll be a challenge to replace that talent, as shown in the Peach Bowl when the pair of defensive stars sat out and the Wolverines subsequently surrendered 41 points to Florida.
If Clemson is to face Michigan in the playoff, it’ll likely mean the Wolverines found success with a new spread offense and the defense avoided a major drop off after losing several stars. In that case, they’ll be dangerous. Still, Clemson has more weapons on offense and should have the firepower to carry the day.
Amidst all the talk about the three big playoff QBs – Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, and Kyler Murray – Dwayne Haskin’s excellence gets lost in the shuffle. Haskins threw for 4,831 yards and 50 TDs! He had a 70% completion percentage and just 8 INTs. He gets replaced by a first time starter in Justin Fields. Fields transferred from UGA after getting stuck behind QB Jake Fromm and inexplicably got a waiver to play immediately. The Buckeyes only return four on offense and will likely experience some level of drop off from last season.
Their defense struggled last year to the tune of 245 passing yards allowed per game. They gave up 31 points to Oregon State, 49 points to Purdue (their lone loss), 31 points to Nebraska, and 51 to Maryland. They return 9 starters and replace their defensive coaches. They should be stronger on that side of the ball.
Ohio State doesn’t challenge themselves in the non-conference, but they play at Nebraska, at Northwestern, and vs. Wisconsin from the Big 10 West. They also go to Ann Arbor. I’m not sure they can avoid a notable drop off on offense (they finished second in passing yardage per game last season) and I think folks are overlooking how good of a Coach Urban Meyer was because of the controversy that engulfed last season.
If they make the playoff however, it likely means I was wrong about their offensive regression, Justin Fields met or exceeded expectations, and Meyer wasn’t missed. If their offense is as strong as last season, but now paired with a good defense they will be hard to beat. Ohio State is not one of my playoff picks, but their upside is high so if they’re good enough to make it, they could put up much more of a fight than the last time they played Clemson and lost 31-0.
The Sooners had arguably the best offense in NCAA history in 2018. They averaged an NCAA-record 8.6 yards per play. Kyler Murray threw for a ridiculous 4,361 yards and 42-7 TD INT ratio. Now they have to avoid a major drop-off while losing four starting offensive linemen, leading receiver Marquise Brown, and Heisman-winning QB Kyler Murray. They almost certainly will take a step back offensively, but how big it is will depend on how transfer QB Jalen Hurts performs.
In Jalen Hurts’ best year as a starter at Alabama (2016), he threw for 2,780 yards with a 17-1 TD-INT ratio. Moving to the Big 12 should help him boost his numbers as he trades the LSUs and Auburns of the world for offensive-oriented teams like Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Still, he will need to show skills growth if the Sooner offense is going to avoid a major regression.
On defense, they were simply awful. They were dead last nationally in passing defense and failed the eye test miserably. Alabama carved them up in the playoff with simple slant routes. They often looked hapless. They allowed 40 points to Kansas! They return nine defensive starters and bring in Alex Grinch from Ohio State to be the new defensive coordinator. There’s reason to think the defense can get a lot better – they can only go up.
Big questions remain around their offensive line and replacing Kyler Murray, but if they make the playoff, it likely means the offensive line was fine, Jalen Hurts totally changed his game and threw for over 3,500 yards, and the defensive improved immensely. They may be less likely than Michigan or Ohio State to achieve that upside, but their upside may be the highest.
The surprising return of QB Justin Herbert means Oregon returns essentially their entire offense from last season. QB Justin Herbert was projected as a first rounder, but elected to return anyway. While NFL executives love him, he needs to be more consistent. His stats (3,151 passing yards 28-9 TD-INT ratio) aren’t that eye popping and he struggled in a few games, most notably in the Ducks’ inexplicable 15-44 at Arizona. The added experience may help him take it to the next level as will an offensive line that brings back all five starters.
The defense returns seven starters, but replaces defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. There shouldn’t be a drop off, but coaching changes always bring uncertainty.
Oregon opens the season in Arlington, TX against Auburn and plays Washington is on the road. That makes their path to the playoff far less certain, but Washington has defensive questions and Auburn will still be figuring out their QB situation in week one. If Oregon can escape Arlington, they have a very good chance to go 12-0 or 11-1 and enter the Pac-12 Championship game with a shot at a playoff berth.
Mario Cristobal wasn’t the most lauded hire when Oregon scrambled and chose him following Willie Taggart’s departure for FSU, but he has the program pointed in the right direction. I’m not sure any team in the Pac-12 has the upside to beat Clemson, Alabama, or Georgia in the playoff, but Oregon is probably the most dangerous in the conference.
QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift return for their junior seasons in what could be the Dawgs best chance for a National Title for the next couple years. They return six starters on offense and seven on defense and should once again be one of the five or six best teams in the country. They have a tricky path though as they get Notre Dame in the non-conference, Texas A&M and Auburn from the SEC West, Florida from their own division, and of course Alabama likely awaiting in a potential SEC Championship game.
The offense was third in the country per S&P+ advanced statistics rankings last season. QB Jake Fromm is incredibly efficient. He had a 67% completion percentage and 30-6 TD-INT ratio. He didn’t air it out much though. His 2,749 passing yards were 1,217 fewer than Tua Tagovailoa and 531 fewer than Trevor Lawrence. He has been called a “game manager.” To some extent it’s true; he’s just a very good one. With Jim Chaney’s departure to Tennessee, James Coley – who previously called the plays under Al Golden at Miami – will take over play calling duties. He may give Fromm more chances downfield. UGA only passed the ball 39% of the time last year. Expect that number to rise in Fromm’s junior season.
One complicating issue is the loss of all their key WRs as well as their starting TE. Running back D’Andre Swift’s 297 receiving yards is the most among returning players. That could prevent Fromm from building on last year and the Georgia offense from becoming more balanced.
The defense returns seven starters, but has the tough task of replacing CB Deandre Baker, who is now a New York Giant. They must do a better job of getting to the QB. They only had 24 sacks all of last season. Their 1.7 sacks per game ranked just 100th nationally. They brought in Jermaine Johnson from Independence (Kansas) Community College (made famous by Netflix’s Last Chance U) to help. They also have six former five-stars on defense so they have the talent, but need to develop it quickly.
A new play caller with a potentially more aggressive offense may make UGA a little less of a sure bet, but the upside it offers is potentially what UGA needs to get over the last hurdle. If Fromm and a totally new WR-corps can pull it off, Georgia has a chance to take the next step. If they try and fail, a small step back is possible.
The biggest threat to Clemson is undoubtedly Alabama. There have been five college football playoffs thus far. Alabama has come out on top in two of them. Both of their titles succeeded losses in the playoff the year prior (2014: Ohio State; 2016: Clemson). It was clear in 2017 that Alabama was seeking revenge. Tony Brown’s crazy post-game rant showed he had been stewing all year following the loss to Clemson in Tampa. That’s what Clemson will have to overcome in 2019 to repeat.
Alabama will have a very experienced offense. They’ll likely start one redshirt freshman on the offensive line, but all their other starters could be juniors and seniors. Tua gets all three of his starting wide receivers back making for the only QB/WR grouping that can rival Clemson’s.
At running back, Alabama has to replace both Josh Jacobs (drafted 24th to Raiders) and Damien Harris (drafted 3rd Round – 87th Patriots), but Najee Harris returns. Behind him, Brian Robinson Jr. who is a junior seems ready for a larger role, only collecting 87 career carries thus far. He’s a former four-star recruit that holds the single-game 6A Alabama high-school rushing record (437 yards).
They return seven defensive starters. Most notably, their secondary should improve. At cornerback, Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe return for their sophomore campaigns and Trevon Diggs returns for his senior campaign. At safety, junior Xavier McKinney and seniors Shyheim Carter and Jared Mayden are back. The three-man defensive line must replace two starters, most notably Quinnen Williams. Much like Clemson, the strength of their defense could shift towards the back-end.
Steve Sarkisian and Pete Golding will coordinate the offensive and defense respectively. Both have worked with Saban before (Golding was an internal promotion) so the hope is that they know what they have signed up for and won’t quickly vacate the role. If a renewed focus is brought to the coaching staff that’ll help too.
Alabama’s secondary will put up more of a fight if they face Clemson’s receivers again, but they’ll still be disadvantaged. An even further improved Alabama offense will score more than 16 against a Power Ranger-less Tiger defense though. Anyone who beats Clemson will have to do it in shootout fashion, and Alabama fueled by revenge is the team best positioned to do it.
If you aren’t already subscribed to the @ClemsonPawcast, find it on the Apple podcasting app and subscribe there. If you’d like more perspectives or deeper analysis on this topic, check out our Clemson Pawcast episode as we discuss these contenders and a few more in depth.