Potential flaws for each national title contender: Clemson


by - Contributor -
Clemson needs young receivers like Frank Ladson to step up this season.
Clemson needs young receivers like Frank Ladson to step up this season.

We know about the strengths of college football’s national championship contenders, but in this three-part series we’ve zoomed in on their potential flaws and weaknesses. We started with Alabama and Georgia and then looked at Ohio State, Penn State, and Oklahoma. We’ll end by looking at the Clemson Tigers.

Clemson

It feels really weird to say this, but for the first time in a long time, I have some concern about Clemson’s wide receiving corps. Losing Tee Higgins to the draft and Justyn Ross to injury in the same offseason is tough. They were “alphas” -- the type of guy you could throw a jump ball up to and expect them to win it.

Since 2011, I can think of only two seasons that Clemson didn’t have an alpha WR: 2015 and 2017. In 2015, Mike Williams was hurt at the beginning of the season. Artavis Scott, Charone Peake, and Deon Cain filled the void admirably, but the injury certainly made QB Deshaun Watson’s job immeasurably more difficult. When coupled with Cain’s suspension, it may have been the difference in the close loss to Alabama in the national championship. This was remedied the next year when Mike Williams returned and the Tigers avenged their loss to the Crimson Tide.

In 2017, Deon Cain was the closest thing to an alpha WR the Tigers had. Much of the passing game struggles can be blamed on quarterback play, but the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama exposed that the WRs were to blame as well. Cain had key drops and the WR corps didn’t bail out QB Kelly Bryant by winning tough-job balls when he needed them to. Alabama plowed through the Tigers.

Look to 2020 and sophomores Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson are breakout candidates. Both are 6-foot-3 and have the potential to become the type of receiver that consistently goes up and wins jump balls. Ngata has a little more strength. Ladson has a little more speed. They could be a potent duo. They combined for just 368 yards last season though, so it is still a projection based on their recruiting ranking and athleticism.

True freshman EJ Williams is another option. He is a four-star from the same Alabama town as Justyn Ross. He’s also 6-foot-3 and could be a future alpha WR, but it’s unfair to expect that to come to fruition immediately.

Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers are the other options, but at this point in their respective careers, WR No. 1 is not a reasonable expectation. Powell hasn’t proven to be a game-changing WR through four years at Clemson. Amari is very good but is a different type of receiver. At 5-foot-10, his style is more reminiscent of Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud than Mike Williams and Tee Higgins.

So, where does that leave the Tigers? Either Ngata or Ladson (or both) need to step up and fill the void. That’s the simplest solution. Fortunately, Braden Galloway can also take much of the pressure off the WR corps by becoming a major receiving threat at tight end. That is a positive development I am expecting. Additionally, Travis Etienne’s growth as a receiver can help ease the burden. He had 28 receptions during the regular season last year. I expect that production to increase even further.

What’s the other concern for Clemson? I’d point to an offensive line that has to replace four starters. While I’m not overly concerned about the starters due to the depth developed last season, depth is a bit of an issue. An injury (or COVID-19 infection) or two along the O-line could put the Tigers in a precarious position. If Clemson can’t stretch the field due to trouble at WR, an inexperienced O-line can’t fairly be expected to road grade running lanes when opponents know it is coming.

There’s an obvious reason for optimism though. Clemson may play just one quality opponent -- Louisville -- prior to November (assuming the Tigers still visit Notre Dame in November). That gives the young WRs and offensive linemen plenty of time to settle into their new roles. The Tigers have recruited at an elite level and develop talent at an unparalleled level. By the time they travel to South Bend, they’ll be ready. So despite the challenges ahead, the Tigers are probably the best bet in all of Power 5 conference football to make the College Football Playoff.

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