Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State, No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 12 Auburn, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 10 Stanford, No. 9 Miami, No. 8 Penn State, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 5 Georgia, No. 4 Washington, No. 3 Ohio State
No. 2 Clemson
2017 record: 12-2
Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Oh my goodness, the defensive line
There’s a chance Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant all could have been first-round NFL draft choices had they elected to play professionally after the 2017 season. But they didn’t, and now Clemson has one of the most horrifying defensive lines in recent memory.
That’s not hyperbole either. Wilkins, a defensive tackle, and ends Ferrell and Bryant are all All-Americans. The fourth starter, tackle Dexter Lawrence, is a two-time All-ACC selection entering his junior year. Not too shabby.
Among that foursome is a combined 432 tackles, 90 tackles for loss and 47 sacks. Add in a deep group of linebackers, and it should help out a secondary that has to replace a few starters.
Clemson was stellar against the pass last year, allowing the fourth fewest yards through the air per game of any team in the country.
Trayvon Mullen is back at corner where he’ll be joined by Mark Fields, a senior with plenty of experience, including five starts. Tanner Muse returns at safety with nine starts under his belt. K’Von Wallace will likely start alongside him. Safety is deeper than corner for the Tigers and any potential growing pains should be mitigated by the nation’s top pass rush.
On the heels of three straight Playoff appearances, Clemson has its best defense. That’s a scary thought.
What to make of the quarterback situation
The looming presence of Trevor Lawrence has been a lingering storyline ever since Kelly Bryant scuffled in the College Football Playoff semifinals against Alabama.
It will likely continue to linger into the season.
Bryant will almost certainly open the season as the starting quarterback for the second year in a row. He was pretty solid in his first year succeeding Deshaun Watson, throwing for 2,802 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions while rushing for 665 yards and 11 scores. But the dreadful performance against Alabama — 18-of-36 for 124 yards and two interceptions — is in the back of the minds of Clemson fans, leading to the inevitable question: can the Tigers win another national title with Bryant as the QB?
That’s where Lawrence comes in.
He was the No. 1 recruit in the 2018 class, enrolled early and quickly pushed 2017 5-star recruit Hunter Johnson out of the equation. If Bryant scuffles, it could be Lawrence’s show sooner rather than later, much like Dabo Swinney opted to replace Cole Stoudt with Watson back in 2014.
No matter the quarterback, he’ll have weapons and a solid offensive line to play behind.
At running back, Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster each carried the ball 107 times, with Etienne, now a sophomore, out-gaining Feaster, a junior, 766 to 669. Etienne also scored six more touchdowns (13) than Feaster (7). Etienne is the more explosive of the two, but they’ll likely continue to see a fairly tight split of carries. Adam Choice, a senior with 702 career yards, should also have a role.
You know the name Hunter Renfrow, of course. The guy who caught the game-winning touchdown in the 2016 national championship is back for his senior year. He will line up next to Tee Higgins, a 2017 5-star recruit, and Derion Kendrick, a 2018 5-star recruit. Amari Rodgers, who had 19 catches as a true freshman, should have a big role, too.
The big question is who will be throwing that group the ball. The offense was what ultimately held the Tigers back last year. Even a slight improvement, when coupled with that defense, could go a long way. And if Lawrence is the catalyst for that improvement, Swinney will have to make that move. And he likely won’t hesitate all that much.
It’s hard to find a loss on the schedule
The Tigers are in a prime position for an undefeated run to the postseason. Just look at the schedule.
The toughest games are on the road, but they probably won’t be too tough. Texas A&M is a difficult road environment, but is under a new regime and is likely a year away from seriously competing in the SEC. Florida State should be good in its first season under Willie Taggart, but the Seminoles feel like one of the more unpredictable teams in the country entering 2018.
Many folks are high on Boston College, but you would think Clemson would be able to corral A.J. Dillon and the Eagles’ stellar running attack. And then the big rivalry game, South Carolina, is a home game. Oh, and they avoid Miami out of the Coastal.
The Tigers have been prone to a slip-up almost yearly, but on paper it’s hard not to predict an unbeaten run through the regular season heading into the ACC title game.
Impact player: Tee Higgins, WR
Higgins averaged 20.3 yards per reception as a true freshman, but caught only 17 balls (for 345 yards). With Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud playing on Sundays, Higgins will be much more involved in 2018. While Renfrow does his thing in the slot, Higgins has the potential to be the top option on the outside. His performance in the spring game — four catches for 118 yards and two TDs — was a glimpse of that.
Game to watch: Oct. 27 at Florida State
Though there will be a substantial drop-off from first to second place in the standings, we like Florida State to bounce back from last year to be Clemson’s top competitor in the ACC Atlantic. If Clemson is going to get upset, it might very well happen in Tallahassee.
This is an easy one. Any questions on the offense are quickly put to rest and Clemson marches to its second national title in three years.
Clemson played down to competition at times last year and it proved costly against Syracuse. A few slip-ups could open the door for FSU, or ultimately prove costly when the College Football Playoff committee makes its picks.
Clemson will go undefeated, win the ACC and make it to the Playoff once again. Who’s ready for Clemson vs. Alabama Round 4?
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