Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, center, is 25-1 as the Tigers' starter. That one loss, though, was a big one: Last season's CFP championship game loss, to LSU. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)


Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: No. 1 Clemson just keeps on keeping on

Only the Tigers can win 14 games and say been there, done that. But Clemson wants 15 this year.

Posted July 25th, 2020


The college football season is less than two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, concludes with who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 1 Clemson

No other program has been more synonymous with success in recent years, save for Alabama. Clemson has won 14 or more games in four of the last five years, and last year won 10 games by 31 points or more. The Tigers have dominated the under-achieving ACC, where once dynastic brands like Florida State and Miami are coming off losing seasons. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the face of college football, figures to take the Tigers into the CFP for a sixth straight year and then become the first pick of next spring’s NFL draft. The offensive line must be rebuilt, as only one starter returns, and two of the three linebackers left, including Butkus Award winner Isaiah Simmons. When you pair Lawrence with running back Travis Etienne, who’s the ACC’s all-time scoring running back, Clemson has the nation’s best backfield tandem.


Clemson was ranked first in our preseason poll last year, too.


About the Tigers

2019: 14-1, 8-0 in the ACC; beat Virginia in the ACC title game, then beat Ohio State 29-23 in the CFP semifinals and lost to LSU 42-25 in the CFP championship game

Coach: Dabo Swinney (130-31 overall, all in 11 years at Clemson)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense

Shoes to fill: LB Isaiah Simmons (Butkus Award winner, 8th overall pick of the NFL draft); CB A.J. Terrell (1st, Falcons); WR Tee Higgins (2nd, Bengals); LB Tanner Muse (3rd, Raiders); G John Simpson, (4th, Raiders); S K’Von Wallace (4th, Eagles); G Tremayne Anchrum (7th, Rams)


Catching up

Wide receiver Justyn Ross, who led the team last year with 66 catches for 865 yards and 8 touchdowns, was diagnosed with a congenital fusion in his spine and will miss the season. … Clemson has had 23 players test positive for the coronavirus. The Tigers did get in nine spring workouts before they were called off. Swinney also took some heat when he was seen wearing a shirt with the words “Football Matters,” drawing the ire of some who believed he was mocking the Black Lives Matter movement. He denied that. But he also had to defend his program when it was revealed that one of his assistants had repeated a racial slur to a player in 2017. … Quarterback Trevor Lawrence became engaged this summer to his longtime girlfriend and soccer player, Marissa Mowry. He popped the question at Memorial Stadium. … Clemson signed 23 players in its third-ranked recruiting class, including perhaps the marquee defensive line crop in the country, none bigger than five-star tackle Bryan Bresee and five-star end Myles Murphy. The Tigers signed six five-stars in all. Bresee was considered by many to be the nation’s top overall recruit. … Clemson parted with master recruiter and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott, who’s now the head coach at South Florida.


Clemson linebacker James Skalski wraps up LSU quartrback Joe Burrow during last season’s CFP championship game. Skalski was Clemson’s leading tackler last season. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)

Returning leaders

Passing: Trevor Lawrence 268-407-3,665 yards, 36 TDs, 8 INTs

Rushing: Travis Etienne (led team), 207-1,614-19; Lyn-J Dixon (2nd); QB Trevor Lawrence (3rd), 103-563-9

Receiving: RB Travis Etienne (3rd), 37-432-4

Tackles: LB James Skalski (2nd), 105

Sacks: DT Tyler Davis (2nd), 5.5; DE Justin Foster (T-3rd), 4.5; LB James Skalski (T-3rd), 4.5

Interceptions: CB Derion Kendrick and S Nolan Turner (T-3rd), 2


Returning all-conference

Offense: QB Trevor Lawrence (1st team); RB Travis Etienne (1st team); OT Jackson Carman (3rd team); WR Justyn Ross (hon. mention); AP Amari Rodgers (hon. mention)

Defense: DT Tyler Davis (2nd team); CB Derion Kendrick (2nd team); DE Xavier Thomas (3rd team); DT Nyles Pinckney (3rd team); DE Justin Foster (hon. mention)



Missing targets: Lawrence, the presumptive first pick of the 2021 draft, is out to improve on a 25-1 career record and is probably still peeved about his play against LSU in the title game. He’ll be without the departed Tee Higgins as well as Ross  and may not have a go-to receiver. But Lawrence can throw to 6-3 sophomores Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson as well as top recruit E.J. Williams from Ross’ high school and tight end Braden Galloway coming off a one-year suspension.

Et tu, Etienne?: Unlike a lot of draft-eligible running backs like J.K. Dobbins and De’Andre Swift, the athletic Etienne surprised some when the talented, tough running back spurned the NFL and announced he was returning for his senior year. A chance to become the first three-time ACC player of the year and earn a second ring proved to big a carrot to turn down and maybe work on his receiving game. He needs just 565 yards to become the league’s all-time leading rusher, and after averaging 7.8 yards a carry last year, who’s going to bet against him?

Defensive boss: Brent Venables’ name pops up for head coaching vacancies like bluebonnets in Texas, but the former Oklahoma defensive coordinator says he’s plenty happy to remain at Clemson for his ninth season. Little wonder. With Dave Aranda leaving LSU for the top job at Baylor, Venables may arguably be the best defensive wizard in all of college football. In his last six seasons, the Tigers finished sixth last year in total defense and before that fifth, fourth, eighth, 10th and first nationally. Of course, he takes home $2.4 million a year, so why leave? “Everyone says all good things must come to an end,” he told David Hood of “I don’t think so.”

2019 national stat rankings

Where Clemson ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Tigers ranked in 2018.

Scoring: 3rd (2018 — 8th)

Scoring defense: 4th (T-51st)

Total offense: 4th (2nd)

Total defense: 1st (72nd)

Passing: 36th (2nd)

Pass defense: 1st (86th)

Rushing: 5th (63rd)

Rush defense: 9th (56th)

Red zone offense: 30th (115th)

Red zone defense: 2nd (113th)

Turnover margin: T-17th (32nd)

Time of possession: 25th (29th)


Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Former Gamecocks quarterback hopes to take over at Utah / Inside the Utes

No. 20: Central Florida, Darrell Wyatt are reloading with receivers / Inside the Knights

No. 19: Recruits are raving about Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck / Inside the Gophers

No. 18: A Q&A with North Carolina coach Mack Brown / Inside the Tar Heels

No. 17: Jim Harbaugh is fighting for Michigan, college football / Inside the Wolverines

No. 16: Oklahoma State’s Hubbard finds his voice / Inside the Cowboys

No. 15: USC is Zooming up the recruiting rankings / Inside the Trojans

No. 14: Is Jimbo Fisher taking Texas A&M back to the good ol’ SWC days? / Inside the Aggies

No. 13: Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst stands with his players’ new-found voices / Inside the Badgers

No. 12: Assistant coach will Auburn’s recruiting in Alabama / Inside the Tigers

No. 11: For Texas and Sam Ehlinger, it’s now or never / Inside the Longhorns

No. 10: Oregon’s Penei Sewell eyes a second straight Outland Trophy / Inside the Ducks

No. 9: Notre Dame’s AD on the Irish, this season / Inside the Irish

No. 8: LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase the latest to wear team’s beloved No. 7 / Inside the Tigers

No. 7: Florida’s AD dealing with COVID-19, too / Inside the Gators

No. 6: New Georgia quarterback JT Daniels has USC in the rear view / Inside the Bulldogs

No. 5: Oklahoma fans already love cornerback recruit from Austin / Inside the Sooners

No. 4: Penn State’s Gordon learned awareness through his grandfather / Inside the Nittany Lions

No. 3: A closer look at Alabama’s future non-conference contracts / Inside the Crimson Tide

No. 2: Ohio State’s athletic program has a lot riding on football / Inside the Buckeyes

No. 1: Clemson Tigers