5 Midseason Concerns for Clemson
Clemson's 6-0 start to the season has produced plenty of positives.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence looks like a true Heisman Trophy contender. Running back Travis Etienne is about to break the ACC's all-time rushing mark. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables' defense is once again among the best in the country.
But it hasn't been all rainbows and unicorns for the first half of the season. Like all teams in college football, the Tigers have their issues. Here's a look at five midseason concerns heading into Saturday's noon contest with Boston College:
It's hard to believe this is on the list when considering how good Etienne is, but overall, this has not been the dominant rushing attack the Tiger faithful are used to seeing. Clemson currently ranks 40th nationally in rushing yards per game. The team average of 4.6 is much lower than last year's 6.4, which led all of college football. Etienne has been held below 100 rushing yards in the last two games against inferior opponents. The reasons are plentiful. Teams are stacking the box heavily without a true outside receiver to worry about, bottling up Etienne. The offensive line hasn't performed consistently well in creating holes for the running backs. And those rushers not named Etienne have done little to separate themselves in a crowded position room, and not because they've all been great. The Tigers need for all of this to improve to truly have the offensive balance that the coaching staff desires.
With no Justyn Ross this season, Clemson has had to rely heavily on Amari Rodgers, Braden Galloway and Etienne in the passing game. None of them are outside receivers. And while the Tigers can likely get away without having a true established star during the regular season, the more talented defenses in the postseason will force Lawrence to beat them on the outside. Frank Ladson Jr. has shown potential with 272 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but he's also had trouble catching the football. Meanwhile, Joseph Ngata, who was supposed to be the starter, hasn't played in several weeks with an abdominal strain and likely isn't going to be a factor this week. Ultimately, between his health and Ladson's drops, something has to give to make sure the Tigers are ready for the next level of play. It's hard to think freshmen Ajou Ajou and E.J. Williams are ready to take over.
Clemson's already had its share of injuries this season. Losing linebacker James Skalski, the heart and soul of the defense, for multiple games is problematic. So is not having defensive tackle Tyler Davis, who's maybe the most important lineman on that side of the ball. He's only played in half of Clemson's games, and it's noticeable when he's not in there. Starting cornerbacks Derion Kendrick and Mario Goodrich have had a hard time staying on the field, and defensive end Justin Foster hasn't even seen it in 2020. The Tigers have the depth to overcome this rash of injuries, but they'll need Skalski back for the postseason and better luck in the second half.
Because of the injuries above, Clemson has had to put young players in tough spots early in the season. Defenders like Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee need to continue making impacts, while the young secondary still needs some maturing based on the fact that the Tigers have allowed 11 plays of 30 yards or more this season. But what happens if these young, talented players hit the proverbial freshmen wall? Is there enough proven depth for them to have a dropoff and it not affect the performance? These questions will be answered very shortly.
So what if the Tigers will head to South Bend, Indiana, next week as a double-digit favorite. It's still the marquee game in the ACC. and this will be the best overall team Clemson will have played up to that point. The Tigers can't play like they did last week. Only this Irish defense is ahead of Clemson in total and scoring defense in the league. It will be a true challenge for Lawernce and this offense, but the defense will have to stop a solid run game and a QB in Ian Book who's finally playing good football. Because of the unique COVID-19 season, Clemson will probably have to beat this Notre Dame team twice to win the ACC and advance to the College Football Playoff.