The ACC Network will debut Thursday night, as the Clemson Tigers’ title defense kicks off against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Dabo Swinney’s top-ranked team will host their ACC rival and look to extend their winning streak to 16 games. Clemson has risen to a level where a College Football Playoff berth is expected at the beginning of the season. Opening the season with a conference opponent brings added pressure to the focus needed for game one. During their rise, Clemson has grown to crave pressure.
Clemson Tigers’ Title Defense Begins
Last season’s championship run was built on the foundation of a dominant defense. In 2019, the Tigers’ title defense will rest on the shoulders of quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Luckily the Clemson offense has an abundance of playmakers to help carry the load. The Tigers will make scoreboards and stat keepers work overtime this season. There are maybe one or two other programs in the nation who can showcase the depth of playmaking talent on this offense. The defense will likely have some growing pains while replacing most of last season’s front seven, but there is no shortage of talent on that side of the ball.
Embarrassment of Riches
Lawrence begins his sophomore season as the Heisman Trophy favorite after a stellar freshmen campaign, that included a flawless performance in the national title game. He has the arm strength, accuracy, size, and composure you would want in a quarterback you created in a lab. His biggest issue will be keeping the abundance of playmakers at his disposal well fed. Joining him in the backfield, and Heisman lists are junior Travis Etienne. The star tailback is coming off the best single-season rushing total in school history. Similar production in 2019 will see him rise to the top of the career records in Clemson. It’s safe to say this backfield is loaded. Just for good measure, Etienne’s back-up Lyn-J Dixon averaged 8.8 yards a carry as a freshman.
The Tigers’ title defense will also rest in the hands of the best wide receiver duo in the nation. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross combined for over 100 catches, more than 1900 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2018. Each of these dynamic receivers gives their star quarterback a margin for error because for their ability to go up and get the ball over opposing defenders. Lawrence is good enough on his own merit, but when you throw in the range and ability of this duo, it’s almost unfair. Amari Rodgers returns to play in the slot, he could emerge as the new third-down threat with the always clutch Hunter Renfrow on to the NFL. Freshman Frank Ladsen Jr and Joe Ngata have both earned praise this fall and will factor in as well.
Clemson has risen to the top of the college football world with a recent dominance on defense. They lost a lot from last year’s championship unit, but there is still plenty of talent to rely on. Isaiah Simmons will lead the 2019 version of coordinator Brent Venables‘ unit. The rangy linebacker has the speed and athleticism to make plays in space, while also having the size and strength to attack the line of scrimmage. Simmons will lead an inexperienced group of linebackers. There will also be multiple newcomers along the defensive line, so that unit will need to get up to speed quickly.
The front seven may have to feel its way through early in the season with so many younger contributors. The secondary, however, is deep with experience with three starters returning from 2018. A.J. Terrell is one of the best corners in the ACC, and freshmen Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones have both made noise in fall camp. Tanner Muse, K’Von Wallace, Nolan Turner, and Denzel Johnson all return at safety making it Clemson’s deepest position aside from receiver.
Step Up to The Plate
The biggest question heading into the Tigers’ title defense is whether any ACC team can give them a challenge. Clemson is 34-2 since 2015 against conference opponents. Last season only one of nine contests were decided by less than 20 points. Georgia Tech has a new head coach and no longer runs the triple option. They will offer a unique test to open the season, with the unknowns surrounding their new philosophy on offense. The Tigers focus will be on being the best version of themselves. Clemson has set a standard for its own play in recent seasons, and this Thursday will be the first chance for the 2019 team to live up to it.