For No. 2 Clemson, success in the 2020 College Football Playoff will be defined by whether or not the Tigers win their third national championship of the playoff era. That may seem like an absurd measuring stick considering how hard it is to win a national title in college football, but the fact is this year’s group doesn’t have much experience losing. Since the start of the 2017 season, Clemson’s losses have been to LSU in the national championship game last year, to eventual national champion Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal in 2018 and a pair of regular season ACC road losses to Syracuse (2017) and Notre Dame (2020). That’s it, that’s the list. This is a group that is used to competing for and playing for national championships. It is not at all comfortable with defeat.
So now Clemson returns to the site of Trevor Lawrence’s only loss as a starting quarterback, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, for the beginning of a playoff run that many hope ends in national championship redemption for their star quarterback. The Tigers have had wild twists and turns through this strange season, including a positive COVID-19 test and two-game absence for Lawrence that covered a near-upset at the hands of Boston College and an epic two-overtime thriller at Notre Dame. But New Orleans is only the beginning of the journey, because Clemson believes its good enough to beat Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Miami. That’s where it could face either another classic in the playoff rivalry with Alabama or a rubber match with Notre Dame. Either rematch would carry the kind of epic hype you want from a title bout, and either rematch is game that Clemson can win.
It really shouldn’t take that much convincing, but in case doubt remains for a few of you out there here are three reasons to think the Tigers will win it all.
1. The most talented roster in Clemson history
If you think Clemson’s place as one of the two most successful programs of the College Football Playoff era is impressive, consider that those accomplishments — six straight ACC Championships, four national championship game appearances in five years and a 79-7 record since the start of 2015 — have come with recruiting classes that generally rank between No. 10 and No. 20. It was a credit to the player evaluation during recruiting and player development once Dabo Swinney and his staff got those classes on campus that the Tigers were hanging with Alabama and beating Ohio State while recruiting a tier below that top-five to top-10 level. Two national championships later, the game has changed and Clemson has taken its recruiting efforts national and started to hang with Alabama and Ohio State not only on the field but on the trail as well. Clemson signed the No. 6 ranked class in the country in 2018 and the No. 3 ranked class in 2020, giving the Tigers their highest-ever ranking in the 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite at No. 4.
But while it takes some time for blue-chip prospects to see the field at some of those other top programs, Clemson has five-stars that are ready to make an instant impact. We saw D.J. Uiagalelei answer the call with Trevor Lawrence out, but it’s particularly evident on the defensive side of the ball where defensive linemen Bryan Bresee (the ACC Defense Rookie of the Year) and Myles Murphy have been significant contributors since the first game of the year and other players like defensive back Malcolm Green, a high-energy and big-play rotation player who had 1.5 sacks against Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game, coming on strong late in the year. So while you might be tired of how Clemson has made college football boring with all the winning, buckle up because judging by the 2021 class, they might be even more talented next season.
Oh yeah, and this is a team that’s led by Lawrence, the No. 1 ranked prospect from the 2018 class and likely a No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Speaking of Lawrence …
2. The best passing attack in Clemson history
Replacing both Tee Higgins (NFL Draft) and Justyn Ross (out for 2020 with a medical condition) was one of the big concerns heading into the season. The revolving door of stars, which stretches back to Deon Cain and Mike Williams before that, was suddenly disrupted. But the result has been, statistically, the best in program history. Clemson’s passing attack is averaging 343.8 yards per game, which is the best in the ACC and No. 7 among all FBS teams. Even more, it’s 10 yards per game ahead of the school-record mark of 333.9 passing yards per game set by Deshaun Watson and the national championship-winning Tigers in 2016.
Trevor Lawrence has done what was expected in helping lift the entire offense with his own generational talent, but a ton of credit also goes to a pair of senior wide receivers in Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. They have answered the call with Higgins and Ross out to lead the team in receiving and they were particularly instrumental as leaders to help Uiagalelei light up the scoreboard when Lawrence was out for the win against Boston College and Notre Dame. Speaking of freshmen, that school-record pace for passing has only been boosted by the late season emergence of true freshman EJ Williams, who totaled four catches for 80 yards and touchdown in the ACC Championship Game, including a one-hand grab that was a late entry for catch of the year.
3. No roster has had more CFP success
Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers have won a national championship and played for another. Same with starting linebacker James Skalski and defensive linemen Nyles Pinckney and Xavier Thomas. Starting safety Nolan Turner had the game-winning interception against Justin Fields in last year’s playoff semifinal and Derion Kendrick was the team’s second-leading tackler in that win against the Buckeyes. Alabama may be tied with Clemson for the most College Football Playoff appearances (6), best CFP record (6-3) and College Football Playoff national championships (2), but the Tigers have done it consecutively since 2015 with back-to-back appearances in the title game. No coaching staff in the country has been better prepared for the extended season that comes with the playoff era and it’s shown in the way the Tigers build out their depth during the year in order to show up in the postseason both healthier and more confident in their backups.
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