Many expected this game to be another instant classic like their previous meetings. Instead, Alabama played exactly how you’d expect the most dominant program of the last ten years to play and made the Clemson Tigers look like anything but the number one team in the nation. It was without a doubt the worst performance by the Tigers this season.
Despite ending their season on a very sour note, there is plenty of reason to remain optimistic about the future of the Clemson Tigers. The loss to Alabama this year will not soon be forgotten, but it’s never to early to turn your eye to the future in college football.
In the loss to Alabama, many of the Tigers weaknesses on offense were exposed. That’s to be expected when playing college football’s most consistently elite defense. Now the Tigers have an entire offseason to adjust, reload, and come back better. Anyone who watched the Sugar Bowl will agree that the first adjustments should be made along the offensive line.
The Tigers offensive line was solid for the majority of the regular season, leading the way for one of the most potent rushing attacks in Clemson football history. However, the right tackle position was inconsistent throughout the season as neither Sean Pollard nor Tremayne Anchrum could lock down the starting role for long. Losing senior right guard Tyrone Crowder is a sure thing, left guard Taylor Hearn is heading for the NFL, and left tackle Mitch Hyatt could declare for the draft as well.
Losing three starters along the offensive line is not easy to overcome. Luckily, the Tigers managed to attract the top-ranked offensive line recruit Jackson Carman earlier this year. Carman’s presence is sure to bolster the offensive line. Adding a few more blockers to this years recruiting class should be a priority for the Tigers coaching staff.
Besides their struggles along the offensive line in the Sugar Bowl, Clemson also had trouble driving the ball downfield in the passing game. Starting quarterback Kelly Bryant did plenty to silence his doubters in the regular season, but his performance against Alabama is likely to cloud the future of the Tigers QB1 position. With the 2018 arrival of the top ranked high school player Trevor Lawrence looming, and highly talented backups Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper already waiting in the wings, Bryant will have his work cut out for him to remain the top dog in what will be one of the nations best quarterback units.
Whoever emerges as the Tigers quarterback of the future will have plenty of weapons at their disposal. Clemson will return their two most talented running backs in 2018. Although neither Tavien Feaster nor Travis Etienne were able to find much success in the Sugar Bowl, both had excellent seasons which they should only improve on as their careers continue. The receiver corps will dearly miss Deon Cain, another likely NFL draft departure. Fortunately, the Tigers have enough talent at the position to hopefully replace Cain’s production. Hunter Renfrow and Ray Ray McCloud are both likely to return, while rising sophomores Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers both flashed in 2017 and are in line for larger roles heading into next season.
The Tigers defense fared slightly better than the offense on New Years Day. There was little the Clemson defenders could do about two very costly turnovers by the offense. Losing the battles for both time of possession and field position certainly didn’t help their chances, and several costly penalties by the defense only shifted the momentum even more towards Alabama. The defense has been a strength for the Tigers in recent years and 2017 was no different. Come 2018, the lineup will undergo some pretty big changes.
The leadership and talent of seniors Ryan Carter and Dorian O’Daniel will be sorely missed. Star defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is all but certain to declare for the NFL draft. Linebacker Kendall Joseph and defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are all draft eligible and losing all three is a distinct possibility that would be devastating to the Tigers front seven. Keeping one or more of them on campus in 2018 would be a major offseason victory.
Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence will be the focal point of the Clemson Tigers defense in 2018. Joining him on the defensive line are highly coveted recruits Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry. These three will go a long way in making up for the departure of the aforementioned Tigers. Linebacker Tre Lamar showed flashes of talent at times in 2017, but also dealt with injuries down the stretch. He is also likely to take on a larger role in the front seven. Joining him in the linebacker unit will be a number of rotational players, special teams contributors, and new recruits. The development of these players will be a storyline to keep an eye on in the offseason. There will be enough continuity in 2018 to help carry the Tigers to another solid defensive year, but there will be plenty of new faces and question marks in the starting lineup as well.
As for the Tigers secondary, the largest benefit of this offseason will be more experience and time to grow. Clemson’s defensive backfield was inconsistent throughout the season, making some excellent plays at times and going through growing pains at others. Losing their most experienced player in Ryan Carter will only highlight the need for the Clemson defensive backs to take a big step forward in 2018.
Losing is never easy. Losing on a stage like the college football playoffs in such a disappointing fashion is downright painful. Losing is also inevitable. It’s going to happen to everybody at some point or another. There’s no controlling that. What we can control is how we respond to loss. We’ve seen Clemson respond in the best ways to major losses before. Right now, there’s no reason to expect anything different. The Clemson Tigers will be back in 2018 and you can bet they’ll be coming back strong.