’19 prospec­tus on Clem­son, ’Bama, oth­ers

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS | COLLEGE FOOTBALL - Dan Wolken

Even with the 2018 sea­son now in the rearview mir­ror, Clem­son’s per­for­mance against Alabama in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off cham­pi­onship game will set the tone for the next eight months of con­ver­sa­tion.

Here are col­lege foot­ball’s three big ques­tions loom­ing over the offsea­son.

Is Clem­son the fa­vorite to re­peat?

As soon as Clem­son put the finish­ing touches on its re­mark­able and thor­ough 44-16 vic­tory over Alabama last Mon­day, writ­ers putting to­gether pre­sea­son Top 25 rank­ings and Las Ve­gas odd­s­mak­ers quickly changed the nar­ra­tive for 2019. Whereas it seemed be­fore kick­off that Alabama would au­to­mat­i­cally be pre­sea­son No. 1 no mat­ter what, that changed as the na­tion caught a glimpse of how com­plete a pro­gram Clem­son has be­come.

The Tigers will have their chal­lenges. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, es­pe­cially when a de­fense that dom­i­nated for much of the sea­son will un­dergo a per­son­nel over­haul. Be­sides los­ing its en­tire start­ing line and all-At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence line­backer Ken­dall Joseph, line­backer Tre La­mar and cor­ner Trayvon Mullen said Wed­nes­day that they are turn­ing pro early, so it’s go­ing to look to­tally differ­ent.

But Clem­son has gone through this be­fore. When co­or­di­na­tor Brent Ven­ables lost that great de­fen­sive group led by Vic Beasley and Grady Jar­rett, it reloaded. When it lost a slew of de­fen­sive backs af­ter the first ti­tle game ap­pear­ance in 2015 in­clud­ing Mack­en­sie Alexan­der, T.J. Green and Jay­ron Kearse, it reloaded. Now it’s time to reload again, and there’s lit­tle doubt Clem­son has re­cruited the depth to do it.

As Dabo Swin­ney said last Mon­day about de­par­tures on his de­fen­sive line, “We’ve got a lot of guys that y’all don’t have any idea who they are right now, but this time next year every­body is go­ing to know who they are. That’s the fun part about what I do. We get to start over ev­ery year and plug guys in and let them go play.”

Even if there is a drop-off on de­fense, Clem­son’s offense projects to be his­tor­i­cally good. The na­tion saw last week what quar­ter­back Trevor Lawrence was ca­pa­ble of as a true fresh­man, and all of the top skill play­ers around him are com­ing back in­clud­ing spell­bind­ing fresh­man re­ceiver Justyn Ross along with Tee Hig­gins and Amari Rodgers. With Travis Eti­enne re­turn­ing as a ju­nior and four se­niors start­ing on the of­fen­sive line, there aren’t go­ing to be any ques­tion marks on that side of the ball.

Com­ing off his ti­tle game tour de force, Lawrence’s pres­ence and ex­pected growth should nudge Clem­son to No.1 in the pre­sea­son over Alabama. And given the lack of chal­lengers in the ACC, it is hard to en­vi­sion a Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off with­out the Tigers.

The only thing that could po­ten­tially de­rail Clem­son at this point is com­pla­cency or ego, which has hap­pened when teams that have al­ready ac­com­plished quite a bit bring back most of their stars. But much like what Nick Sa­ban has es­tab­lished at Alabama, you can bet on Swin­ney find­ing ways to keep his guys mo­ti­vated.

What ad­just­ments will Alabama make?

If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Sa­ban won’t chalk the loss up to “one of those games.” That’s not how it works at Alabama. Rear ends will be chewed, egos will be bruised and changes will be made.

The sug­ges­tion that Alabama’s dy­nasty is headed to­ward col­lapse af­ter get­ting ex­posed so badly is prob­a­bly wish­ful think­ing. Alabama isn’t leav­ing the cham­pi­onship con­ver­sa­tion any time in the near fu­ture, not with Tua Tago­v­ailoa com­ing back and an­other No. 1ranked re­cruit­ing class set to en­roll. There’s sim­ply too much tal­ent at Alabama to project an im­mi­nent de­cline as Sa­ban en­ters the twi­light of his ca­reer.

But it’s cer­tainly rea­son­able to say that the out­come de­mands some ad­just­ments, par­tic­u­larly with the coach­ing staff, which has ex­pe­ri­enced sig­nificant turnover in re­cent years as other pro­grams have poached his be­hind-thescenes brain­power.

Notably, a num­ber of Sa­ban’s moves last offsea­son were geared to­ward re­cruit­ing. Af­ter slip­ping a bit in the 2018 class (Ri­vals had Alabama at No. 7, while a Ge­or­gia pro­gram full of ex-Alabama staffers was No. 1), Sa­ban reloaded with younger coaches in­clud­ing co-de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Pete Gold­ing from Texas-San An­to­nio, re­ceivers coach Josh Gat­tis from Penn State, de­fen­sive backs coach Karl Scott from Texas Tech and spe­cial teams coach Jeff Banks from Texas A&M.

But did Sa­ban go too far on re­cruit­ing and lose some of the edge in prepa­ra­tion that he has typ­i­cally had? It cer­tainly looked that way. In key sit­u­a­tional mo­ments, Clem­son’s staff dom­i­nated, par­tic­u­larly with Ven­ables throw­ing some cov­er­age looks at Tago­v­ailoa that clearly had him con­fused. And whereas Alabama’s sea­son-long is­sues in the se­condary and on spe­cial teams didn’t mat­ter be­cause of how dom­i­nant its offense had been, ev­ery prob­lem be­came mag­nified against Clem­son, whose staff had a bet­ter game plan and got the bet­ter of Alabama on key third-down plays and red-zone op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Sa­ban has a hole to fill al­ready with offen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Lock­sley, who had a par­tic­u­larly bad night in the cham­pi­onship game, headed to Mary­land. Gat­tis left Thurs­day for Michi­gan. Offen­sive line coach Brent Key is headed to Ge­or­gia Tech, and you could see other de­par­tures that de­velop or­gan­i­cally.

How Sa­ban re­configures the staff will say a lot about what he thinks is nec­es­sary to win an­other ti­tle, par­tic­u­larly if he is tempted to bring for­mer Mary­land coach D.J. Durkin aboard. Durkin is still a con­tro­ver­sial name given the cir­cum­stances that led to his de­par­ture, but his rep­u­ta­tion as a de­fen­sive coach would far ex­ceed any­one cur­rently on the Alabama staff. He re­port­edly spent time “ob­serv­ing” Alabama in De­cem­ber.

Can any­one close the gap?

Inevitabil­ity is the is­sue that will hang over the 2019 sea­son. Clem­son and Alabama ap­pear to be so far ahead of the rest of the pack that, un­til proved oth­er­wise, it’s safe to as­sume they’ll meet for the fifth con­sec­u­tive year in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off un­less in­juries take one or both of them down.

Still, there will be a na­tion­wide hunger to see some­body else rise up and get to that level. But who’s it go­ing to be?

Ge­or­gia is a pop­u­lar can­di­date be­cause of how well Kirby Smart has re­cruited, but there are go­ing to be sig­nificant ques­tion marks with both co­or­di­na­tor po­si­tions open and an ex­o­dus of play­mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with re­ceiver Ri­ley Ri­d­ley, tight end Isaac Nauta, re­ceiver Mecole Hard­man and run­ning back Eli­jah Holyfield all leav­ing early for the NFL.

Ohio State will have plenty of tal­ent, as al­ways, but the first year for coach Ryan Day will be a big test. If quar­ter­back trans­fer Justin Fields is el­i­gi­ble and as good as ad­ver­tised, maybe the Buck­eyes can avoid their an­nual Iowa/ Pur­due disas­ter.

Hir­ing Alex Grinch to run the de­fense is a good start for Ok­la­homa, but it seems un­likely he can plug all the leaks to make that leap in just one year — even if Lincoln Ri­ley is able to seam­lessly tran­si­tion from Kyler Mur­ray to an­other elite quar­ter­back.

Texas is on the up­swing, and Sam Eh­linger is com­ing back. Even if the Longhorns start as Big 12 fa­vorites, there just isn’t enough tal­ent there over­all to make the leap from pos­si­ble play­off team to the Clem­son/Alabama level.

Texas A&M could be a prob­lem for Sa­ban over the long haul in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence West with Jimbo Fisher re­cruit­ing the way he is, but the Ag­gies play at Ge­or­gia, Clem­son and LSU next sea­son. Even if Texas A&M beat Alabama at home, hold­ing up over that sched­ule to make the play­off seems un­likely.

Notre Dame seems to have hit its ceil­ing. Penn State has too much to re­place, start­ing with quar­ter­back Trace McSor­ley. Michi­gan needs way more pop on offense to get into con­tention. Auburn is too up-and-down. Washington might be bet­ter with Ja­cob Ea­son tak­ing over at quar­ter­back, but the Huskies’ over­all tal­ent level gets ex­posed ev­ery time they play top-level com­pe­ti­tion. South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is a mess. Florida State isn’t even a fac­tor any­more.

Maybe some­one else will put to­gether a mag­i­cal sea­son and chal­lenge the fa­vorites, but Clem­son-Alabama, Part 5 is the likely out­come next on Jan. 13, 2020, in New Or­leans.


Re­ceiver Justyn Ross, who ac­counted for 153 of Clem­son’s 482 yards of of­fense in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off cham­pi­onship game against Alabama, will be back in the fall.

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