Clemson could be the center of the college football universe on Oct. 3.
When Notre Dame visits Death Valley for the first time since 1977 – the Irish won the national title that year – it will feature two College Football Playoff contenders in a virtual elimination game. Expectations around South Carolina are already set at College GameDay levels.
“That’s the game circled on Clemson’s schedule by fans more than any other one. They haven’t seen this in almost 40 years,” said Roy Philpott, who covers Clemson for Scout.com. “Talking to the coaches here, they believe Notre Dame has the best offensive line they’ll see. They know this game is going to be tough and it’s going to be big. The fans know it too.
“This should be the best atmosphere here since Georgia in 2013 and it may surpass that.”
Irish Illustrated’s First Look series heads to Clemson, which represents Notre Dame’s toughest road test of the season and a certain primetime kickoff.
Clemson has its quarterback of the future. The issue is Deshaun Watson isn’t the quarterback of the present, at least not yet as the sophomore continues rehab from December ACL surgery.
When healthy, Watson was spectacular in a freshman season of 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions. When injured, the Tigers’ offense considered mediocre a good day, even with former offensive coordinator and uber innovator Chad Morris running the show. Morris took the SMU head coaching job last off-season.
“Everything that I’ve heard has been extremely positive,” Philpott said of Watson’s return. “But the question is if he can stay healthy for a whole season. He hasn’t done that in a couple years.”
In addition to the knee injury, Watson suffered a broken finger in October that cost him a month. And team doctors believe he arrived at Clemson out of high school with other ligament damage to his knee, which was cleaned up during the December surgery.
When he gets healthy, Watson will have the best batch of receivers on Notre Dame’s schedule outside Southern Cal. Artavis Scott and Mike Williams combined for 133 catches, 1,995 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Slot Ray Ray McCloud (No. 121 overall on Scout.com) and receiver Deon Cain (No. 44 overall on Scout.com) join the program this summer as incoming freshmen.
“I think Ray Ray is going to force his way into the starting lineup by game one,” Philpott said. “Cain could be a starter too. Armstrong reminds me of Tayvon Austin from West Virginia.”
The offensive line returns two starters and the running back position brings back starter Wayne Gallman. But everything comes down to Watson. If healthy, he could be the best quarterback on Notre Dame’s schedule.
“He has an element of Charlie Ward in him,” Philpott said. “He doesn’t have John Elway arm strength or Cam Newton mobility. But his demeanor, I haven’t seen him get rattled. Maybe he’s not a five-star athlete, but he’s a five-star between the ears.”
Clemson finished Top 5 nationally last season in scoring, rushing, passing and total defense. The Tigers led the nation in tackles for loss and finished seventh in sacks.
To put Clemson’s tackle for loss totals in perspective, the Tigers had five players with double-digit TFLs. The Irish had zero.
However, Clemson also lost every starter in the front seven, including two first-round picks. Top-flight corner Mackensie Alexander, a former Irish recruiting target, is back. So is safety Jayron Kearse, another prospect who looked at Notre Dame out of high school. But it’s the defensive line and linebacker spots where Clemson must rebuild.
“Last year they had crazy depth in the front and that’s no longer there,” Philpott said. “So it’s not going to be the No. 1 overall defense again. Can it be Top 25? Yeah. This defense should be good but just not as electric.
“I think the strength moves from the pass rush to the secondary.”
Defensive end Shaq Lawson will be the best of the front after making 11 tackles for loss as a sophomore to go with five quarterback hurries. The depth chart is full of former Irish targets in Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and one-time Irish commitment Richard Yeargin. But it’s Lawson who has potential star power with Vic Beasley (21.5 TFLs, 12 sacks) gone.
“Vic was fast-twitch, Shaq is better against the run,” Philpott said. “They’re going to be leaning on him to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.”
Clemson used to be a verb. That wasn’t a good thing.
The college football podcast “The Solid Verbal” coined the term “Clemson-ing,” which roughly meant a ranked team losing a shock game to an overmatched opponent. Yet the Tigers have outgrown the term, having won 32 straight against unranked opponents.
Now the issue is if Clemson can knock off higher-end competition, going 0-3 against ranked opponents last year. The Tigers are also 1-5 against rival South Carolina under Dabo Swinney, finally breaking through last season. They’ve lost three straight to Florida State too.
Clemson could get three straight ranked opponents in an early season stretch of Louisville, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The Tigers have a 16-day gap between a Thursday night game at Louisville (Sept. 17) and Notre Dame coming to Death Valley (Oct. 3).
“They’re not losing to teams they shouldn’t lose to and basically beating everybody’s brains in when they’re favored,” Philpott said. “I think they’ve broken through. Now you get Notre Dame and Florida State at home. People are expecting an ACC championship and to be in the conversation for the playoff. That’s kind of the next step.”