Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers takes the field prior to the AllState Sugar Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)


Our 10th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 2 Clemson’s D-line could be best ever in NCAA history

Coach Dabo Swinney may be mired in quarterback controversy early in season

Posted July 27th, 2018


Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14 on our 2017 list.

Our Top 25 — so far:

No. 25: Texas is building — but are we there yet, are we there yet?


No. 24: LSU has a tough schedule, questions at key spots

No. 23: Oregon welcomes a new coach — again and again and again

No. 22: Central Florida is out to go unbeaten (ahem, again)

No. 21: There’s a new coach, offense and direction for Florida State

No. 20: Their big names gone, USC is reloading … or is that rebuilding?

No. 19: For West Virginia, when there’s a Will there’s a way

No. 18: For Boise State, the Mountain West sky is the limit

No. 17: Mississippi State is breaking in a new head coach

No.16: Virginia Tech’s chances hinge on an up-and-down quarterback

No. 15: TCU has been the model of consistency, but there are 2018 concerns

No. 14: Love is all you need, at least if you’re talking about Stanford’s Bryce Love

No. 13: Notre Dame is on the brink of a real springboard season

No. 12: Michigan has said goodbye to John O’Korn, hello to Shea Patterson

No. 11: With just about everyone back, Michigan State looks for a 2017 encore

No. 10: Penn State bids goodbye to Saquon Barkley, but Trace McSorley’s still there

No. 9: Talented Auburn should be considered a CFP possibility coming out of the SEC

No. 8: Oklahoma has reloaded, eyeing a possible first-ever fourpeat in the Big 12

No. 7: Miami’s dreams of ACC titles and CFP berths have to go through Clemson again

No. 6: Wisconsin’s 10 returning offensive starters ready to state case for CFP

No. 5: Washington’s got two possible Heisman candidates and a top-10 defense

No. 4: Georgia is eager to put last year’s overtime title game loss in the rearview

No. 3: Can Texas pipeline spur No. 3 Ohio State to title?

Today’s team: No. 2 Clemson

The Tigers’ best-case scenario: A fourth consecutive playoff appearance for Dabo Swinney’s juggernaut program, chosen by 139 of 148 ACC media voters to win the league. Anything less than the final four will be considered a failure for a team that could feature one of the best defensive lines in NCAA history and six players projected to go in the first two rounds of the 2019 NFL draft. Clemson vs. Alabama IV?

Their worst-case scenario:quarterback controversy divides the locker room. Kelly Bryant was no Deshaun Watson in his first rodeo, but he did a nice job keeping the Tigers on track. Then Clemson signed the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, Trevor Lawrence, a 6-foot-5-inch pure pocket passer oozing with charisma. Some fans already are calling for a QB swap.

RELATED COVERAGE: Revenge will be on the agenda against Georgia Tech, Syracuse

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Inside the Tigers

Coach: Dabo Swinney (10th year, 101-30)

2017: 12-2, 7-1 in the ACC (lost to Alabama 24-6 in the CFP semifinals)

Returning starters: 4 offense, 4 defense

Goodbye: LB Dorian Daniel (3rd, Chiefs); WR Deon Cain (6th, Colts); WR Ray-Ray McCloud (6th, Bills)

Spring cleaning: Two highly touted quarterbacks sized up the competition and decided to transfer. Hunter Johnson, a former five-star recruit, chose Northwestern. Zerrick Cooper, not wanting to sit out a year, picked FCS power Jacksonville State. … Clemson’s last four recruiting classes were No. 7, 11, 16 and 9, according to 247Sports composite ratings.

Kendall Joseph #34 of the Clemson Tigers celebrates recovering a fumble in the second half of the AllState Sugar Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Kelly Bryant, 262-398-2,802, 13/8 (1st); Zerrick Cooper, 25-41-256, 2/0 (2nd); Hunter Johnson, 21-27-234, 2/1 (3rd)

RUSHING: Travis Etienne, 107-766-13 (1st); Tavien Feaster, 107-669-7 (2nd); QB Kelly Bryant, 192-665-11 (3rd)

RECEIVING: Hunter Renfrow, 60-602-3 (1st)

TACKLES: LB Dorian O’Daniel, 104 (1st); LB Kendall Joseph, 87 (2nd)

SACKS: DE Clelin Ferrell, 9.5 (1st); DE Austin Bryant, 8.5 (2nd)

INTERCEPTIONS: CB Trayvon Mullen, 3 (T-1st); CB Ryan Carter, 3 (T-1st)

Returning All-ACC players (13)

Offense: OT Mitch Hyatt (1st team); C Justin Falcinelli (1st); WR Hunter Renfrow (3rd); OG Taylor Hearn (3rd); RB Travis Etienne (3rd); OT Sean Pollard (hon. mention)

Defense: DE Clelin Ferrell (1st); DT Christian Wilkins (1st); DT Dexter Lawrence (1st); DE Austin Bryant (2nd); LB Dorian O’Daniel (2nd); LB Kendall Joseph (3rd); CB Trayvon Mullen (hon. mention)


Dominating D-line: Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant each were graded as day one or two NFL draft selections after last season. Surprisingly, all three decided to stay in school, the foundation for what should easily be the most dominating defensive line in college football. Add Dexter Lawrence, who wasn’t draft eligible, to the mix, along with stout veteran backups and two incoming freshman standouts. Lawrence and Ferrell are projected as top-10 picks in ’19. Wilkins and Bryant could go later in the first round or the second. Expect an NCAA-high 50 sacks and 125 tackles for loss from this defense.

A change of signal-callers?: Not everything is perfect. Whoever the QB is can rely on slot man Hunter Renfrow, and WR Tee Higgins is a strong breakout candidate after dazzling in the spring. But help is needed from a receiving corps that was just 13th in the ACC in yards per catch. WR Diondre Overton and Amari Rodgers need to step up. Top freshmen are pushing them. Depth in the secondary is a real concern as freshmen Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael are being counted on to contribute early.

Striptease leads to PR mess: Clemson is a small town in the northwest corner of South Carolina, and perhaps it gets boring there at times. So DT Christian Wilkins livened up the Dabo Swinney Ladies Clinic last week by doing a suggestive striptease dance for one of the attendees at the fundraiser for breast cancer research. Now the school is dealing with a PR mess. Clemson SID Ross Taylor told The State newspaper the video was part of the event’s “Dancing with the Tigers” program and was “certainly not indicative of what was actually going on.” Other Tigers also strutted around, posing shirtless, as Taylor said “to highlight the hard work that’s done with the strength and conditioning program.”

2017 national rankings

Scoring: 32nd (33.3 ppg) — right above No. 33 Ole Miss, right behind No. 31 Colorado State

Points allowed: 2nd (13.6 ppg) — right above No. 3 Wisconsin, right behind No. 1 Alabama

Passing: 61st (235.5 ypg) — right above No. 62 Bowling Green, right behind No. 60 South Alabama

Rushing: 35th (194.1 ypg) right above No. 36 Missouri, right behind No. 34 Memphis

Total offense: 38th (429.6 ypg) — right above No. 39 Navy, right behind No. 37 Arizona State

Total defense: 4th (276.7 ypg) — right above No. 5 UTSA, right behind No. 3 Michigan

Justin Foster #35 of the Clemson Tigers leads a tackle of Malik Rosier #12 of the Miami Hurricanes during the ACC Football Championship at Bank of America Stadium on December 2, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

The schedule

Sept. 1 (11:20 a.m., ACCN)Furman
Sept. 8 (6 p.m., ESPN)at Texas A&M
Sept. 15 (2:30 p.m.)Georgia Southern
Sept. 22at Georgia Tech*W, 24-10 in Clemson
Sept. 29Syracuse*L, 27-24 in Syracuse
Oct. 6at Wake Forest*W, 28-14 in Clemson
Oct. 20North Carolina State*W, 28-14 in Raleigh
Oct. 27at Florida State*
Nov. 3Louisville*W, 47-21 in Louisville
Nov. 10at Boston College*W, 34-7 in Clemson
Nov. 17Duke*
Nov. 24South CarolinaW, 34-10 in Columbia
* ACC game

The key game: . Oct. 27 at Florida State. Las Vegas oddsmakers say Clemson will be a double-digit favorite in every game, including this one (and an early trip to College Station). But the Seminoles are the only team on the schedule who come close to matching the Tigers’ talent.

The last 5 years

201311-2 (7-1)8th / 8thOrange, W
201410-3 (6-2)16th / 17thRussell Athletic, W
201514-1 (8-0)12th / 2ndCFP title game, L
201614-1 (7-1)2nd / 1stCFP title game, W
201712-2 (7-1)5th / 4thCFP semifinals, L
Total61-9 (35-5 ACC)5-2 in bowls

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking

Our Top 25, by conferences

5 schools:

Big Ten — No. 3 Ohio State, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 10 Penn State, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan

4 schools:

ACC — No. 2 Clemson, 7 Miami, No. 16 Virginia Tech, No. 21 Florida State

SEC — No. 4 Georgia, No. 9 Auburn, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 24 LSU

Pac-12 — No. 5 Washington, No. 14 Stanford, No. 20 USC, No. 23 Oregon

Big 12 — No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 15 TCU, No. 19 West Virginia, No. 25 Texas

1 school:

Independents — No. 13 Notre Dame

Mountain West — No. 18 Boise State

AAC — No. 22 Central Florida

Coming tomorrow: (Drumroll, please.) Our No. 1 team

Want a hint?

This school is coached by Nick Saban. Its colors are red and white. Its mascot is an elephant named Big Al. Oh, and it’s won five of the last nine national championships.