Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.
The Big Story: Clemson
The Trevor Lawrence era is over. It was a glorious three-year run for the Tigers, with as many losses as College Football Playoff appearances and a national championship to boot. Now, D.J. Uiagalelei, Lawrence’s heir apparent, inherits all the pressure that comes with quarterbacking a program with annual playoff expectations. The Tigers return 10 starters from a top-25 defense and enjoy an easy schedule in the ACC Atlantic, avoiding Miami and UNC in the regular season. Clemson will be tested Week 1 against Georgia in Charlotte, but its next real challenge likely won’t be until it returns there for the ACC championship game in December.
Can’t Miss: Justyn Ross
The Tigers lost all of their top receiving threats from a season ago but get back Ross, one of their top pass catchers from 2018–19. The senior receiver missed all of last season after spinal surgery, but he was medically cleared to play in 2021 earlier this month. He’s a 6' 4" target who torched Alabama in the 2018 national championship. A healthy Ross could ease Uiagalelei’s transition to full-time starter as he did with Lawrence three years ago.
Key Question: Can Uiagalelei be Clemson’s next great QB?
That’s the expectation for the sophomore who started just two games last season. One was a narrow win over a middling Boston College team and the other a double-overtime heartbreaker against Notre Dame. It’s a small sample size—and Uiagalelei played valiantly in both games while Lawrence was out with COVID-19—but one career loss for Uiagalelei is already half of Lawrence’s career total. That’s who he’ll be held up against for the rest of his career, fair or not.
X-Factor: Replacing Travis Etienne
The Tigers’ running back room is tasked with making up for the exit of the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. It will be a group effort to replace Etienne’s record-breaking production. Lyn-J Dixon is expected to be the lead back of the group, which adds five-star freshman Will Shipley. No returning running back saw much work with Etienne in the backfield the last four years, but they’ll benefit from Uiagalelei’s affinity for throwing to his running back as well as the offensive line returning three starters.
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Date to Circle: Sep. 4 vs. Georgia (in Charlotte)
Clemson should romp to an undefeated regular season if it wins Week 1. That neutral-site date with the Bulldogs is as tough as the Tigers’ schedule gets. Georgia closed the season on a four-game winning streak once JT Daniels took over behind center and has momentum heading into 2021. The two programs have not met since 2014, when Georgia won in Athens. With both the Tigers and Bulldogs consensus top-five teams heading into fall, a Week 1 victory will buoy either team’s résumé for the remainder of the season.
The Bottom Line
Clemson hasn’t won fewer than 10 games in the last decade. Swinney and the Tigers have proved they can lose top-end talent to the draft annually and still find themselves playing into January each year. The ACC is Clemson’s for the taking until proven otherwise, but how much further can the Tigers go with Uiagalelei running the show?
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