College Football: Clemson Is Making a Run at a Repeat

Taking over at quarterback for Deshaun Watson, Kelly Bryant has the Tigers in the hunt to make their third straight appearance in the national title game.

Coming into the season, a loaded Alabama team was the clear national title favorite, while uber-talented Ohio State and Florida State squads were in the discussion, as well.

The team that actually won it all last season and beat all three of these juggernauts in the process was somewhat of an afterthought.

Not anymore.

Clemson is firmly back in the spotlight after convincing wins over Auburn and Louisville, and the Tigers look perfectly capable of defending their crown. A ton of big names are gone, but a ton of talent still remains.

Replacing a Legend

The biggest question the Tigers faced in the offseason was whether junior quarterback Kelly Bryant could adequately fill in for Deshaun Watson, one of the best players in program history. So far, so good, as Bryant is averaging 8.8 yards per throw and completing 68.7% of his passes.

Watson, now of the Houston Texans, graduated as the program’s leader in completion percentage, passer efficiency rating and total yards of offense per game. Bryant had thrown 18 passes as a collegiate player before this year.

Not only was he tasked with filling Watson’s big shoes, he had to do so without the leading rusher and both leading receivers from last year’s title team.

It hasn’t mattered so far as Bryant has looked solid in each of the Tigers’ three games, getting some love from his predecessor in the process.

The junior thrashed Kent State (who was 37th against the pass by the opponent-adjusted efficiency metric S&P+ in 2016), averaging 10.7 yards per pass while completing nearly 73% of his throws. He also had completion rates north of 65% against Auburn (#32) and Louisville (#67). Against the Cardinals, he threw for 316 yards and, despite taking four sacks, he still averaged 7.8 yards per drop back.

Bryant has also been a factor with his legs, too. Excluding sacks, he has rushed for 222 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per rush.

He is not doing things alone, though. While receiver Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett are in the NFL, Bryant is still working with a number of talented pass catchers. Deon Cain (724 yards in 2016), Hunter Renfrow (495 yards) and Ray-Ray McCloud (472) have gotten off to fast starts this year. McCloud and Cain are both averaging over 13.7 yards per catch, while Renfrow has been a strong possession option, catching 15 of the 16 balls thrown his way.

The Tigers' offensive line also has three starters back from the title team, including first-team All-ACC players Mitch Hyatt at left tackle and Tyrone Crowder at right guard.

Despite Cain and McCloud breaking off big plays, Clemson's passing game has still been more efficient than explosive, ranking 20th nationally in completion percentage but 81st in yards per completion (12.0).

The same can be said of starting running back C.J. Fuller. Fuller has replaced Wayne Gallman, who ran for over 3,400 yards and 34 touchdowns during his collegiate career. Fuller has 94 yards on 21 carries (4.5 yards per rush) and while he has not done a ton in the open field, he has gained at least five yards on 42.9% of his rushes, per Football Study Hall (the national average is 39.5%).

The most impressive Tigers' back has probably been sophomore Tavien Feaster, who is averaging 9.3 yards per carry on 19 rushes. He has gained at least 5 yards on 57.9% of his carries and has been more explosive than Fuller. True freshman Travis Etienne has been even more potent, gaining 179 yards on a meager 14 carries.

Overall, Clemson’s rushing attack is 30th in Success Rate but 65th in Isolated Points per play, according to Football Study Hall (Isolated Points per play measures how explosive a team’s successful plays are). If we see more of Feaster and Etienne, the latter ranking could easily improve.

Frankly, the Tigers' offensive transition could not have gone much better as the unit ranks 24th nationally in yards per play (6.9), making it an excellent complement to their elite defense.

Defense Remains Dominant

Clemson’s defense was a huge part of its success last year, checking in fourth in yards allowed per play and 17th in points allowed per game. They've been stellar again this season, ranking ninth in the nation in yards allowed per play.

It's the pass defense that's really excelling as Clemson is 24th in yards allowed per attempt (5.6), 18th in completion percentage (49.3%) and seventh in Success Rate 21.0% (the national average is 40.0%).

Cordrea Tankersley, a third-round pick in the 2016 draft, and safety Jadar Johnson are gone, but other than that, the Tigers' secondary returns largely intact -- featuring safety Van Smith and corner Ryan Carter (seven pass breakups in 2016).

The secondary’s life is also made easier by a ferocious pass rush. The Tigers lead the nation with an 18.4% sack rate, which is nearly four standard deviations above the national average. This is a staggering clip but not exactly a surprising one, given the sheer amount of talent that returns on Clemson’s front seven.

Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell both had six sacks last year (Lawrence had 6.5), while Christian Wilkins and Kendall Joseph added 3.5 apiece. The foursome also combined for 47 tackles for a loss, while Dorian O’Donnell had 10 more. All these players are back for this season, and if that weren’t frightening enough, the team’s most productive defensive linemen in 2017 has not been any of the aforementioned dudes.

The team leader in sacks is actually junior Austin Bryant, who has four, making him one of six players in the nation with at least four sacks. All of Bryant's sacks came in a dominant effort in the Week 2 matchup against Auburn.

Clemson's D-line has not been as stout against the run. If we remove sacks from the equation, the Tigers have allowed 3.8 yards per rush. It’s a fine mark, but it relies mostly on Clemson’s ability to clamp down on big runs.

Per Football Study Hall, the run defense is sixth in Isolated Points per play but 70th in Rushing Success Rate, meaning opponents have generally been able to get the yards they need (but not much more).

Still, many of the pieces return from a unit that was 25th in Rushing Success Rate against in 2016, so it is not hard to imagine this turning around, especially considering the level of competition Clemson has faced thus far.

The household names might be gone, but Clemson still looks as capable as anyone of making a run at the 2017 title.