For Clemson, Life After Trevor Lawrence May Be Rough

Saturday night, #3 Clemson and #5 Georgia squared off in Charlotte in the most anticipated college football matchup of the new season. It was the marquee game of the opening kickoff weekend, a matchup between two of the true heavyweights of college football.

Georgia secured the win, 10-3, and put itself in great position to make it to the playoff even if they lose to Alabama in the SEC Championship. This win over Clemson is what the pundits call a “quality win,” and it will give Georgia the edge against other teams they may be competing with for a playoff berth come December.

Clemson, on the other hand, can still make the playoff if they win the ACC convincingly (i.e. they have to run the table and blow everybody out along the way), but it’s going to be an uphill battle for them. Bama is obviously Bama and looks like a juggernaut once again. If Ohio State beats Oregon this weekend, they will have a clear path to the playoff. Conversely, if Oregon beats Ohio State, they vault ahead of Clemson in the playoff picture. And Oklahoma, although they barley escaped Tulane at home and seem unlikely to go undefeated this year, is still ahead of Clemson in the playoff hunt.

But more importantly, Saturday night was our first real glimpse at Clemson post-Trevor Lawrence. Sure, we had the Notre Dame game last year that Lawrence missed due to Covid, but that was on short-notice. Saturday night was our first true glimpse at the Clemson offensive system not built around Trevor Lawrence.

And we saw just how much Clemson’s offense relied on Lawrence over his three years as their starting QB. Look at these stats Clemson posted against Georgia:

Two rushing yards.

Two.

I know Lawrence was a QB, but QBs have a massive impact on the running game: if the defense respects the opposing team’s QB, they can’t stack the box and key on the run. Georgia clearly didn’t fear DJ Uiagaleilei and was able to stack the box and stonewall the Clemson run game.

The Dawgs sacked DJ 7 times. That means DJ either doesn’t have good pocket awareness, the Clemson offensive line is sub-par, or the Georgia defensive backs locked down the Clemson receivers and forced a bunch of coverage sacks. Or all three.

The point is, Clemson’s offense looked horrible in that game. Just horrible.

It’s not like they were breaking in a new offensive coordinator: Tony Elliott is still there and in year 7 as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. It’s the same system we’ve seen since 2014–the same system Clemson rode to two National Titles, four National Championship Game appearances, and six straight College Football Playoff appearances.

Only Saturday night, it didn’t work. Clemson only managed 180 yards of total offense on 11 possessions. Their first 9 offensive possessions went like this: punt, punt, punt, fumble, pick-six, punt, punt, punt, punt. They finally got a field goal with 3:48 to play in the 3rd quarter on the back of a 10 play, 82 yard drive, but that was their only scoring drive of the game.

Clemson had more three-and-outs (4) than they had points (3).

It’s still early, but from what I saw, DJ is nowhere close to Lawrence as a passer. Lawrence was elite from the moment he stepped onto the field as a true freshman in 2018. You could just tell he was special.

It’s not so apparent with DJ. Now, sure, he went up against a very tough Georgia Bulldogs defense. I have no doubt he’ll look a lot better as the season goes on.

But for some reason, Saturday night just reminded me of Clemson in 2017, the year after DeShaun Watson left. Clemson replaced him with a guy named Kelly Bryant. That year, Clemson was still really good. They went 12-1 in the regular season, with their only slip-up being a 27-24 Friday Night loss at Syracuse. They beat 5 ranked teams that season and made the playoff as the #1 seed in the nation, however once there they lost convincingly to Alabama, 24-6.

In that game, Clemson’s offense was completely inept. They couldn’t do a thing. Bama held them to 188 yards of offense and just 6 points. It was reminiscent of the Georgia game, too: Bama got a pick-six TD off of Clemson just like Georgia did. Clemson’s defense held up well for most of the game, but couldn’t overcome the Clemson offense’s complete inability to move the ball.

Clemson’s defense looked pretty damn good against Georgia, too. They allowed the same amount of points as Georgia’s defense did, after all. You’d expect that from Brent Venables, probably college football’s best defensive coordinator.

But the Clemson offense was basically nonexistent.

I was eagerly awaiting that game because I saw it as the true test of Clemson’s strength as a program: could they thrive at the highest level without a transcendently-great QB talent like DeShaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence? In 2017, after Watson left for the NFL, Clemson took a step back as a program.

It now appears that the same is happening to Clemson in 2021 after Trevor Lawrence’s departure for the NFL.

Clemson is still a great program, but the difference between them and Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State–in my view–is that Clemson can only compete with them when they have a historically-great QB talent.

Sure, you could say Ohio State and Alabama also need elite QBs to be great: Fields at Ohio State, Mac Jones and Tua at Bama, etc.

But the difference is that Ohio State won a National Championship in 2014 with Cardale Jones as their QB, a third-stringer. And Bama won a National Championship with a QB that I’ll bet most people today don’t even remember the name of–Jake Coker.

Plus, there are a lot of people who still aren’t even sold on Mac Jones. Remember, the knock on him in the draft was that he was elevated by the sheer talent around him: he was throwing to DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, had Najee Harris at RB, plus had the best offensive line in the nation. And Steve Sarkisian’s playcalling was masterful. At the very least, you have to admit that last year’s Bama team was so dominant they probably would’ve won it all with or without Mac Jones. The way they destroyed every team they played–nobody looked at last year’s Bama team and concluded Mac Jones carried them.

Point is, Bama and Ohio State have more talent than Clemson across the board. I went over this in my Playoff Preview posts from back in January. Clemson has been able to elevate to their level by having all-time great QBs like DeShaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, but we’ve seen what Clemson looks like without those guys: 24-6 loss to Bama in the 2017 playoff, and the 10-3 loss to Georgia.

It’s a bit like LSU, who just got beaten pretty thoroughly in Pasadena by UCLA. LSU can be elite–when they have a transcendent QB talent like Joe Burrow. But you saw how much LSU regressed after Burrow left. LSU went 5-5 last year and they’re 0-1 this season. 5-6 overall since Burrow left after going 15-0 with him.

I don’t think Clemson will regress to the level LSU in the post-Burrow era. The ACC is just too weak a conference for Clemson to lose more than 1 or 2 games going forward. And Clemson’s defense was good enough to keep them in that game.

But we still have no idea how good Georgia truly is. This looks like a “quality loss” for Clemson right now, but what if Georgia turns out to be not all that great this season? I was not impressed by Georgia QB JT Daniels. Sure, he had an okay statline (22-30 for 135 yards and 1 INT) but it was all screen passes and dink-and-dunks. I don’t think Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken trusts him to really open it up.

And I have no faith in his ability to get into a shootout with a team like Bama.

So we’re assuming Clemson just lost to a true heavyweight, but we really don’t know if Georgia is the real deal. Last season, Georgia got beaten pretty thoroughly by both Alabama and Florida, then barely scraped by Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl, which was a virtual home game for Georgia. If you remember that Peach Bowl game, Georgia was very fortunate to beat Cincinnati.

Of course, it’s a whole different Georgia team this season, but the point is that we shouldn’t be so quick to assume Georgia is elite. If Georgia didn’t get that pick-six against Clemson, we’d be talking about how their offense is a liability.

In that same vein, this could all be a big overreaction in regards to Clemson. They weren’t good on offense, but neither was Georgia. If not for the pick-six, maybe Clemson wins that game. And Clemson is still ranked #4 in the nation in the 247 composite team talent ratings this season:

Clemson isn’t quite on the same level as Bama, Georgia and Ohio State in terms of talent, but they’re close.

So I’m not saying Clemson is about to revert to their pre-Dabo days where they’d routinely lose 4-6 games per year. No chance of that. They’re clearly still a top program and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

But without a super-elite QB like DeShaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence, I don’t see Clemson as a true national title contender anymore.

This isn’t an indictment of the Clemson football program, either. After all, we’re measuring them against Alabama, the Gold Standard of college football for the past 13 years. Bama was in a tier of their own last year, and they probably are in a tier of their own this year as well.

Ohio State might not even be on Bama’s level this year after losing Justin Fields–Ohio State had their hands full with Minnesota on Thursday night, after all.

But I’m less worried about Ohio State because A. Ohio State recruits at a higher level than Clemson does, and B. Ohio State blew Clemson’s doors off in the playoff even with Trevor Lawrence under center for Clemson.

All I’m trying to say here is that it feels like the days of Clemson being able to go toe-to-toe with Bama are over. They were able to compete with Bama when they had DeShaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, but now that Lawrence is gone, it feels like Clemson is falling back to earth a bit.

Austin Frank

Sports blogger

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