Take a glance at the latest Way Too Early Preseason Top 25 from colleague Mark Schlabach, and one thing becomes pretty clear: Ohio State and TCU are the obvious top two teams in the country.
Beyond them? The field is completely wide open, presenting a huge opportunity for Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney.
That’s right. The Tigers -- the only ACC team in the top 10 -- could very well be dark horse contenders to make the College Football Playoff. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Quarterback. Look at the teams ahead of Clemson. Five of them -- Alabama, Baylor, Oregon, Georgia and UCLA -- will all have new starting quarterbacks. That automatically puts a question mark next to each team. Alabama takes perhaps the biggest hit on offense: The Tide have to replace their top quarterback (Blake Sims), running back (T.J. Yeldon is gone, but Derrick Henry returns) and receiver (Amari Cooper).
Clemson, meanwhile, should return a completely healthy Deshaun Watson, who is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab from a torn ACL. The biggest question mark here is whether Watson can stay healthy for the entire season. He sustained three different injuries in his first year on campus, and the Tigers were completely handicapped when he was on the bench. A healthy Watson gives Clemson a good shot at being in playoff contention.
2. Schedule. Clemson has to play four teams ranked in the Early Top 25, plus in-state rival South Carolina. Three of the games against ranked opponents are at home -- Notre Dame on Oct. 3; Georgia Tech on Oct. 10; and Florida State on Nov. 7. Louisville on Sept. 17 and South Carolina on Nov. 28 are on the road. On paper in February, the schedule looks strong enough to vault the Tigers into contention if they are unbeaten deep into October.
3. Uncertainty with everyone from 3-9. Schlabach has USC ranked No. 3 and Alabama ranked No. 4. There is little doubt the Trojans are one of the most talented teams in the country, so this could be the year they get back into the national championship conversation. But there remain many unknowns about Steve Sarkisian as a head coach. Is he on an elite level? Can he put all the talent together into a playoff run?
Alabama has holes, too, but we have become so programmed to automatically include the Tide in any and all playoff discussion that there they are, at No. 4. Michigan State has made its name on defense. But the brains behind that group, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, is now head coach at Pittsburgh. Georgia … do we really need to go into how the Dawgs underachieve every single season? (Much more than Clemson!)
Yes? Well, OK. … Since 2008, Georgia has finished higher than its preseason top 25 ranking just once; the Bulldogs have lost three or more games six times over that seven-year span. That should automatically knock them from way too early contention.
Clemson has won 10 or more games four straight years and counting. Yes, the Tigers have essentially their entire No. 1-ranked defense to replace. But there was so much depth on the defensive line the past two years, the hope is that the backups can step in and become starters without a huge drop off. Shaq Lawson has big-time potential. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander is a rising star.
4. Offense rules. If last season is any indication, teams with superior offenses are the ones that now have an edge. Ohio State, Oregon and Florida State made the College Football Playoff with offenses that were better than their defenses. Including Alabama, all four teams that made the playoff had offenses that ranked in the top 35 in the nation, including two in the top 10. But on defense, none ranked in the top 10; Oregon and Florida State ranked below 60.
If this trend continues, then Clemson could have an edge even with a defense that takes a step back. In addition to returning Watson, the Tigers bring back their top three rushers (Wayne Gallman, C.J. Davidson, Adam Choice PLUS a healthy Tyshon Dye) and top three receivers (Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Germone Hopper PLUS Charone Peake). Chad Morris is gone, but co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott have been learning under him over the past four years. Both have produced multiple All-ACC players during their time with the Tigers.
Clemson is far from a finished product. There is plenty of uncertainty with the Tigers, too. But no more than the other teams jockeying for a College Football Playoff spot.