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Janie Harris and Jack Freifelder | | August 30, 2016

College football countdown: Will Clemson make the Playoff?

College Football: 5 best quarterbacks of 2016

Note: Over the two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Clemson, the CFP runner-up that finished 14-1 last year and is ranked No. 2 in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.

Clemson will make the CFP because... Clemson won't make the CFP because...
  • QB Deshaun Watson should be in Heisman talks.
  • the offense's health and production may falter.
  • WRs and RBs around Watson can perform.
  • a rebuilding defense may not be able to compete.
  • Its defense can force more turnovers.
  • it's tough to make back-to-back CFP appearances.

Jack Freifelder: And now it's down to the final two. Clemson gets the spotlight on this second-to-last day in the College Football Countdown.

The Tigers spent most of last season in rare air as they finished the regular season with an unblemished record, despite a heck of a fight from the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Championship game.

Will these teams make the CFP?
Iowa Mississippi
Houston Tennessee
Mich. St. LSU
Ohio State
Florida St. Oklahoma
Clemson Alabama
There were surely some close calls along the way (@ Louisville, 20-17 in Week 3; vs Notre Dame, 24-22 in Week 4; @ South Carolina, 37-32 in Week 12; vs UNC, 45-37 in Week 13), but the Tigers managed to tightrope their way to the CFP championship game against Alabama, where they fell 45-40.

No need to regurgitate any more box scores here though, my point is they managed to come out on the top side in all of those contests. As the old adage goes, the cream rises to the top.

With gunslinger Deshaun Watson still at the helm throwing the ball to full complement of skill players, it seems like a pretty good recipe to recapture some of that success from a year ago.

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However, the departure of the team’s second-leading wideout Charone Peake (50 catches, 716 yards, 5 TDs) will have a more tangible effect on the flow of the passing game than most might think.

  Clemson Tigers wide receiver Artavis Scott (3) looks to improve on his total of 93 catches from a year ago.

Sure, the team’s leading receiver Artavis Scott (93 receptions, 901 yards, six TDs) returns and the deep threat Deon Cain will be in the mix too, but Peake was the team’s intermediate route-runner, averaging 14.3 yards per catch.

Scott and Cain stretched the defense in different ways than Peake with a yards per catch average of 9.7 yards and 17.1 yards, respectively. That trio worked together to open up different parts of the field for Watson to throw into, not to mention opening running lanes for Watson

While the stats might say that the return of Scott and Cain will allow things to continue as usual, it’s never clear how a departure will impact the entire unit until kickoff.

Janie Harris: While the Tigers’ offense remained a solid producer of points in 2015, they might not be as dynamic in 2016. As you said, there were so many close calls. With an added field goal or touchdown from the opposing team during each, Clemson’s playoff dreams would have come to a screeching halt.

In fact, in the ACC Championship, many Tar Heel fans will argue that UNC could have won that title if the onside kick it recovered wasn't negated due to an offsides call. If that call had not been made, UNC looked poised to make a comeback and potentially defeat Clemson for the title. 

Clemson does return eight starters to the offense, including Watson, who remains a key component to the Tigers’ offense. And, the Tigers’ offense, with powerful players returning to the field, looks to be fairly solid, even with Peake gone.

Still, you never know what holes come from pulling this central player from the lineup. His absence might, as you said, disrupt the flow of the offense. Plus, Watson can’t perform the way he did in 2015 with a struggling offensive line, and while the men on the line return to protect their quarterback once again, Clemson, historically, has trouble keeping the O-line healthy. Last year, Clemson had a lot of luck keeping these men together, but injuries usually run in cycles. 

With all of this, I am not sure that the Tigers will make another run in the CFP in 2016.

JF: Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with you there. A clean slate injury-wise for the Tigers would definitely be a boon to their prospects of returning to the Playoff.

And despite all the talent this team has on offense, the performance at the line of scrimmage — on both sides of the ball — will loom large in determining how far this squad goes.

The defense was second in the nation a year ago with sacks (48), trailing only Alabama, but the unit will likely be in for a down year with the departures of linebacker Kevin Dodd (12.5 sacks) and defensive end Shaq Lawson (12.5 sacks).

Clemson will feature two seniors in the front seven with defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (3.5 sacks, interception returned for TD) and linebacker Ben Boulware (68 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception) returning to school, but that’s a far cry from what the unit looked like a year ago.

  Clemson Tigers cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (25) will be right in the mix on defense for the Tigers.
The secondary also boasts two senior playmakers in safety Jadar Johnson (two interceptions in each of the last two years) and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (four interceptions), so there’s still plenty of big play potential to work with for defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

“Potential” being the operative word here though, because Clemson only forced 25 turnovers (16 interceptions, nine fumbles), a total only good enough for a -2 turnover margin.

Clemson will hope to make things work with a lot of new pieces and moving parts on defense, but one main way the team can help its defense is by improving its turnover margin.

Yes, Watson will have his backfield mate Wayne Gallman by his side for the 2016 campaign, where the running back will look to improve on a season where he netted 1,500+ rushing yards and tallied a baker’s dozen (13) in the touchdown department.

But Watson needs to take another step forward if this team is going to repeat its run through the ACC Conference. Sure it’s easy to look at the 47 total touchdowns (35 passing, 12 running), but the stat that should stick out to critics is the 13 interceptions Watson threw a year ago.

If he can cut down his rate of turning the ball over and continue to keep the chains moving on offense, there’s little that can stop this team — even if the defense may struggle at times.

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JH: As you said, the Tigers’ defense lost a good amount of talent from last year, and that could seriously prevent them from making it to the CFP. Yes, defensive coordinator Brent Venables faced this issue in previous years, and he developed a group of inexperienced players into a serious threat to any opponent’s offense. However, this year holds a new group of men, and they might not be a productive as the men who came before them. They have the talent, but the defense will need to make some serious game-changing moves in order to take on some of the teams Clemson will face in 2016. 

Additionally, Clemson’s special teams’ unit could struggle again in 2016, and since it is often special teams that close games are decided by, this unit has the potential to prevent the Tigers from making their way to the CFP.

With a slow return game and unexceptional distance in punting and kickoffs, this unit for the Tigers doesn’t exactly inspire fear into opponents, and while head coach Dabo Swinney vowed to improve this part of the team, it still looks to be a concern for Clemson fans at the Tigers take on some serious challengers. 

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney looks to lead his Clemson Tigers back to the CFB Playoff in 2016.

Clemson travels to Tallahassee to take on Florida State. Here, the defense will have to stop Dalvin Cook and the FSU offense in order to produce the second Clemson win at Doak Campbell Stadium since 1992. Also, while Clemson defeated FSU by a solid 10 points last year, it remained one of the lower scoring games for the Tigers in 2015, so against a solid FSU defense, Clemson’s offense might struggle this year.

Also, Clemson travels to Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2016, where the Tigers have not posted a victory since 2003. And while the Yellow Jackets are coming off a rough season, some improvements on the GT offense might prove detrimental for a rebuilding defense.

Finally, Louisville continues to improve and fell just a few points short in defeating Clemson last year, holding the dynamic Tiger offense to its lowest amount of points all season. If the Cardinals can hold the Tigers’ offense again, they might defeat Clemson, derailing the Tigers’ path to the CFP.

JF: No real arguments here, the kick return game for Clemson was very pedestrian in 2015, especially the punt return side of the equation. However, place-kicker Greg Huegel did make the most kicks in the nation, going 27-for-32 on 3-point tries.

As you mentioned, Clemson is not really a team that comes to mind when you think of solid special teams play. In other words, there’s not much reason to expect a lot of impact from this side of the ball.

Nonetheless, the expectations and pressure for a repeat run to the playoff will be high for this Tigers team, so we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s a last-minute kick or two mixed in there along the way.

I digress, but Clemson would definitely benefit from an uptick in this department.

On the scheduling note, the matchups you noted are all worth mentioning. Traveling to Georgia Tech and Florida State will be no cakewalk, nor will hosting Louisville.

Georgia Tech brings back senior signal caller Justin Thomas, which could make for an interesting matchup with Watson when they meet in Atlanta. FSU and Louisville’s QB situations are a bit murkier, so most would still opt to go with Watson in those matchups. Admittedly, there’s a lot of football to play for Clemson before those games and anything can happen once the ball is put in play.

  With a ton of hype coming into 2016, Clemson's Deshaun Watson is ready to lead his team.
However, the saving grace for this team will the poise and consistency of the junior quarterback.

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Three quarterbacks have won the Heisman in their junior season since 2010 (Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Marcus Mariota), and if Watson has his way with opposing defenses again this year he could make a serious case to become the fourth junior to win the award since the start of the decade.

JH: We definitely agree on Watson being a major force for Clemson. Still, Alabama, who defeated Clemson for the national title, remains the only team since the CFP began to make back-to-back appearances. Also, during the BCS era, Florida State and Virginia Tech were the only two ACC teams to have back-to-back appearances in BCS bowl games. Right now, it just doesn’t seem likely that Clemson will make it to the CFP for a second year in a row. 

Clemson looks poised to have another good year led by Watson, just not one that ends with a second run at the national championship title.

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