Welcome to the ACC home opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
Wow, what a crazy week it’s been in Tiger Town. It all started with the predictable announcement on Monday morning that Trevor Lawrence would make his first career start on Saturday. Less than 48 hours later, Kelly Bryant announced he would leave the team and transfer. The Tigers are now down to—in essence—two scholarship quarterbacks. Ben Batson, now the third-string QB, is also on scholarship, but he originally walked on, and the staff was going to convert him to safety until Hunter Johnson transferred and Batson was placed on scholarship. Believe it or not, Hunter Renfrow is now the fourth-string QB, and freshman WR Derion Kendrick is fifth. It’s amazing to think about the fact that just 8 months ago, the Tigers had more 4 and 5-star quarterbacks than they knew what to do with. Kelly Bryant is the 4th one to leave the program since then, following Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson and Tucker Israel out the door. I remember asking Brandon Streeter at the Sugar Bowl last January just how he managed to stockpile all these talented quarterbacks and keep them happy. Well, the Tigers may continue to sign several high-profile quarterbacks to come and compete, but in this day and age, keeping them all on the roster and the sideline is another matter.
Though I didn’t foresee Kelly Bryant leaving the team 4 games into the season, the rest of what has transpired has played out exactly as I anticipated. I said as far back as last spring that I thought Kelly Bryant would be the starter going into the season—possibly with both playing meaningful snaps—but that Trevor Lawrence could supplant Kelly Bryant at some point in the middle of the season. While the Tigers are getting dangerously thin at the position, they are still in better shape than the vast majority of teams in terms of their two-deep. Chase Brice is more than capable and has looked good in his limited playing time this season, with the exception of a poor decision and interception he threw into double coverage down in Atlanta last week. I believe the Tigers can win every game on their schedule and win another ACC Championship with Chase Brice if they have to. I just don’t know if they can go beyond that and win a national title. Let’s hope we don’t have to find out! Dabo likened Brice to Brett Favre on Wednesday, saying that Brice has moxie and improvisation similar to the NFL Hall of Famer, who coincidentally visited the team during practice back in August.
As for Kelly, I feel bad for him because he did so much for the team last year. Just look at what happened in the one game he was unable to play, up at Syracuse. The offense couldn’t do much offensively with Zerrick Cooper, scoring just 10 points in the second half, and the Tigers lost the game by 3 after turning the ball over on downs. Yet with Kelly at the helm, they won every other regular season game and another ACC Championship in a rout of Miami in which Kelly was MVP. They destroyed South Carolina in Columbia, and Kelly led them to blowout wins in tough road games at Louisville—against Lamar Jackson—and Virginia Tech. All 3 of those wins were at night with hostile crowds. Kelly Bryant was 16-1 in games he started and finished, losing only to the eventual national champion, Alabama. Kelly would be starting for 90% of Power Five teams, but he just happens to find himself on the same team as a future Peyton Manning. So I completely sympathize with his situation, but I didn’t care for his “slap in the face” comment. We don’t know what was said behind closed doors, but I think Dabo was more than fair with him—in fact, more so than most coaches would have been. Dabo could have strung Kelly along for one more game, waiting until next week to make Trevor the starter, and Kelly would be boxed in with no other choice than to stay with the team. The new NCAA red shirt rule allows players to play up to 4 games without counting toward a year of eligibility, so if Kelly had played one more snap against Syracuse, he would not be able to transfer and play elsewhere. I would bet dollars to doughnuts Nick Saban would not have done what Dabo did, protecting the interests of his player to his team’s detriment. Dabo even told Kelly that if he wanted to transfer, that he would keep him on the team and not play him so he could still have the ability to transfer without leaving the team. And Dabo even started Kelly in the first 4 games, even though most felt that Trevor was the better player going into the season and certainly gave the Tigers the best chance long term. Dabo simply treated Kelly like every other player—he named the best player at the position the starter. As Dabo pointed out, sometimes it’s the younger player that deserves to start, as was the case with Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Mitch Hyatt, Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, Deshaun Watson and many others. The only difference is that Kelly Bryant had such a great record as the starter, and it’s so unusual for a quarterback with such a good resume to be beaten out for the starting spot. It’s unusual, but it’s fair. Again, I understand that Kelly said what he did from a place of frustration and pain. I just wish he hadn’t said it.
It will be interesting to see where Kelly lands. Some lucky team in need of a quarterback is going to get a very good one and a quality person and leader to boot. The obvious possibility is Arkansas because of Kelly’s ties to Chad Morris, who recruited him to Clemson. He would be a great get for the Hogs, who are reeling right now, and a good fit for their offense, but if Kelly is looking to possibly play his way into professional ball, I don’t know if he can do that in Fayetteville. They will likely be better next year, but whether they will have enough talent for him to shine is the question. Another landing spot could be Florida. It’s relatively close, and Dan Mullen’s offense would be a good fit for Kelly. However, they are very excited about freshman QB Emory Jones, and I doubt Kelly will go anywhere without a promise that he will be the starter. Ironically, I saw Emory Jones camp at Clemson, and he might have committed to the Tigers, but they were already stuffed to the gills with 4 and 5-star QB’s at the time. Kelly will not be allowed to transfer to an ACC school or any team on the Tigers’ schedule next year.
One last note on the quarterback situation: the Tigers have help on the way. 4-star QB Taisun Phommachanh, out of Connecticut, committed to the Tigers last April. He is rated as the #8 QB in the nation by ESPN. Again, the Tigers will continue to recruit the position at a high level and probably manage to keep a few 4-star quarterbacks on the roster, but when you have a generational type talent like Trevor Lawrence, players that are in the same class or older are bound to look for playing time elsewhere, especially in this era. Frankly, the Tigers are lucky that Chase Brice loved Clemson so much and decided to stick it out. His patience and determination have paid off, now that he finds himself one sprained ankle or concussion away from being the starter!
Enough about the drama that unfolded this week and players that have left the team. Incredibly, this will be just the 4th game in Death Valley featuring a pair of 4-0 teams! There is an upstart, undefeated Syracuse team, that handed the Tigers their only regular season loss last year, coming into Death Valley, looking for a signature win to catapult them into the rankings. On to the preview and prediction….
Clemson is 4-2 all-time against Syracuse, losing 27-24 last season after 4 straight wins in the series. The Tigers lost 41-0 to Donovan McNabb in the 1996 Gator Bowl, the first all-time meeting….Clemson is 28-2 in its last 30 ACC games….Clemson is 4-0 for the 6th time under Dabo Swinney, the most of any coach. Frank Howard started 4-0 four times, and Danny Ford did it three times….The Tigers are 16-1 in their last 17 true road games, losing only at Syracuse last season on Friday the 13th with an injured starting quarterback…Since 2011, Clemson is 23-4 in games decided by eight points or less. The 85.2 winning percentage in those contests is the best in the nation….Clemson has won 20 straight Saturday games, the longest streak in the Power Five. It is the second-longest streak in program history. The Tigers won 21 straight from 2014 to 2016….Clemson has won 17 straight games in September, last losing in 2014….The Tigers have not allowed a first half touchdown in 7 of their last 9 games but allowed one in the second quarter last week….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 32 straight games…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 48 weeks. Next is Georgia at 17….
The big storyline this week, of course, is the fact that the Cuse puled off a mammoth upset in beating the Tigers last year in the Carrier Dome, 27-24. Everyone remembers that Kelly Bryant was injured the previous week and didn’t make it to halftime, but many seem to forget that the Tigers also lost Greg Huegel to a torn ACL days before the game, and Alex Spence had to make his debut on the road in a pressure-packed Friday the 13th night game. Spence missed two field goals inside 40 yards that Huegel would have made with his eyes closed, and the Tigers lost by 3. It was the perfect storm for the upset, and the Clemson defense—by their own admission—did not show up. From the opening drive, the defense looked unprepared for Syracuse’s up-tempo offense, and it didn’t help that QB Eric Dungey played like a Heisman, dropping dimes left and right. Dungey was 20-32 for 278 yards and 3 touchdown passes with no interceptions, and he also ran for 61 yards.
Dungey is off to a great start this season, leading Cuse to an unexpected 4-0 start, including a 30-7 beat down of Florida State in the Carrier Dome two weeks ago. Syracuse actually led 23-0 before trading touchdowns in the 4th quarter. Dungey actually left that game early after being poked in the eye just before halftime. Cuse only had a 3-0 lead when Dungey left the game, but experienced backup Tommy DeVito was able to lead the Orange to the blowout win. Dungey was back last week against UConn, however, and showed no ill effects from the eye. He was 21-27 for 286 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions in their 51-21 home blowout over the Huskies. He also ran for 77 yards and 3 touchdowns. On the season, Dungey is completing 63.7% of his passes with 9 TD passes and just one interception. He also has 4 touchdowns on the ground and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry, net of sacks. Dungey is the type of quarterback with a lot of moxie, and I don’t believe he will be rattled by the intimidating noise of Death Valley.
Syracuse lost two of their big play-makers at wide receiver—both of whom contributed to the upset last year—in Ervin Philips and Steve Ishmael. They combined for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns in the game last year. Picking up the slack this season are Jamal Custis (#17), Sean Riley (#10) and Nykeim Johnson (#82). A 6’5, 213-pound senior, Custis leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns with 17 catches for 287 yards and 3 TD’s. Riley is 5’8, 170-pound junior at slot receiver with 16 catches for 201 yards and 2 touchdowns. Sophomore Nykeim Johnson is another slot receiver at 5’8 and 167 pounds. He has 13 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown but had his best game last week against UConn, catching 7 passes for 78 yards. Junior Devin Butler (#5) also starts at WR and has good size at 6’3, 194 pounds, but he only has 7 catches for 75 yards so far this season. Their tight end, Ravian Pierce (#6), is a 6’3, 244-pound senior with just 6 catches for 56 yards, but he has 2 touchdowns, including one against Florida State.
At running back, Cuse has a two-headed monster in co-starters Mo Neal and Dontae Strickland. Neal (#21) is a 5’11, 191-pound junior and has rushed for 346 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He also has 3 receptions for 26 yards. He scored 2 touchdowns in the opener at Western Michigan but hasn’t scored since. Strickland (#4), also 5’11, is a 204-pound senior with 170 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and has 5 touchdowns. He has 5 receptions for 61 yards. Also toting the rock will be freshman Jarveon Howard (#28), who has just 23 carries this season but is averaging 8.0 yards per. Dungey is actually leading the team in rushing with 354 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Syracuse goes warp speed on offense. They are 4th in the nation in terms of offensive tempo, averaging 83.5 plays per game. That will be challenge for the Tigers’ defense on Saturday. They are used to seeing a fast tempo in practice, but Syracuse will go even faster. Since the Tigers will only have time to substitute players when Syracuse does, fatigue could be an issue late in the game if the Tigers don’t force some three-and-outs early. The Orange is #13 in total offense with 523.3 yards per game, #9 in rushing offense (278 yards/game) and tied for #10 in scoring offense (49.5 points/game). Their passing offense, however, is only #57 at 245.3 yard/game.
Defensively, Syracuse plays a basic 4-3 scheme. Brian Ward is in his 3rd year as Defensive Coordinator, and the Orange has improved dramatically since his first year in 2016. The Tigers hammered the Cuse 54-0 in Death Valley 2 years ago but scored just 17 points offensively in the upset last year, aided obviously by the injury to Kelly Bryant. Syracuse was #13 on 3rd down last season, and they are currently #2 in that category, allowing opponents just a 19.64% conversion rate on 3rd down. However, Cuse is allowing a lot of yards on first and second down because the Orange is #100 in pass defense (255.3 yards/game), #43 in rush defense (130.75 yards/game) and #78 in total defense (386 yards/game). They are #36 in scoring defense, allowing 20.0 points per game. Look out for Alton Robinson (#94) and Kendall Coleman (#55) coming off the edge. The two starting defensive ends each have 4 sacks already.
The Orange has a new place kicker, freshman Andre Szmyt, but he is not playing like a freshman. He is 10-11 on the season with a 50-yarder to his credit. He’s never been in an environment like Death Valley, though, so let’s see if that phases him at all. Syracuse has played 3 straight home games after opening on the road at Western Michigan, winning a 55-42 shootout.
Expect the Cuse to come into Death Valley brimming with confidence at noon on Saturday, thanks to the 4-0 start and the upset win last season.
The Tigers are coming off their best performance of the season, routing Georgia Tech 49-21 in Atlanta last week. Of course, Trevor Lawrence was superb, leading the offense to touchdowns on 5 of his 6 opportunities and throwing touchdown passes to 4 different players. The offensive line and running backs also had their best game. After rushing for just 115 yards at Texas A&M, the tigers have more than doubled that output in each of their last two games, rushing for 304 yards at Tech last week. Etienne rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries. He also caught a touchdown on a shovel pass from Lawrence. That followed a 162-yard, 2-touchdown performance against Georgia Southern the week before. So Etienne is hitting his stride, as it were, and he is quietly averaging 8.5 yards per carry, which is #12 in the nation. Feaster also had probably his best game last week, rushing for 75 yards and a touchdown on just 8 carries. Freshman WR Justyn Ross continues to be a big-play machine, scoring a 53-yard touchdown on his one solitary reception last week. Ross has just 6 catches this season but leads the wide receivers with 3 touchdowns and is averaging 28.7 yards per catch! We’ll see if he can keep up that torrid pace on Saturday. One constant so far for the offense this season, which was lacking last season, has been explosive plays. The Tigers are #2 in the nation with 17 plays over 30 yards, and Ross has contributed to that improvement, but the Tigers have a plethora of players included in that number. The Tigers have also had great offensive balance in the last couple weeks, with 23 yards or less separating rushing and passing yards in each of the last two games.
The defense has also been sensational in the last two games since allowing 430 pass yards and 23 second-half points at A&M. Georgia Tech was leading the nation with nearly 400 rushing yards per game, and the Tigers stifled them for just 146 rushing yards and 203 total yards. Venables has now allowed an average of just 208 total yards against Tech over the last 5 years! There was cause for concern when starting linebacker Kendall Joseph injured his groin just a couple days before the game—especially given his experience against that triple-option offense—but J.D. Davis stepped up big-time, registering a sack in the first half and playing a great game. Davis also had the “assist,” if you will to Clelin Ferrell on the fumble recovery in the end zone for the Tigers’ first score. The Tigers created a turnover for the 12th straight game and were able to sack the quarterback 4 times—a real rarity for that offense. In fact, they had 5 sacks the previous week against another option offense and mobile offense. I shudder to think what they’re capable of against a traditional offense with a pure pocket passer! Speaking of which, I got the feeling speaking to several defensive players this week that they are eager to face a non-option offense after playing 3 option teams in their first 4 games. I also think the secondary is eager to redeem itself from the 430 pass yards they gave up in College Station. Though Syracuse will look to pass more than Georgia Tech, they haven’t been prolific in the passing game. They are just #57 at 245.3 yards per game. Speaking of the secondary, keep your eye on safety Tanner Muse on Saturday. He has curiously scored a touchdown in each of the last 2 meetings. He had a 64-yard pick-six in the game two years ago, and last year he recovered a fumble and took it 63 yards for a touchdown. We’ll see if the Muse breaks loose against the Cuse one more time! The Tigers are tied for #2 in sacks despite playing 3 option teams, and they are #4 in total defense, allowing 251.8 yards per game.
As mentioned, the Tigers’ quarterback room is getting ever lonelier. Former walk-on Ben Batson is now the third-string QB, and—believe it or not—Hunter Renfrow is fourth string! Renfrow, of course, was a QB for his high school in Myrtle Beach, running the veer offense. He actually attempted a pass, if you recall, at A&M that was busted up. Incidentally, Renfrow is also the third-string punter! Batson is just getting over a finger injury and is nowhere near ready to be called upon, so hopefully Lawrence and Brice will both stay healthy for a while. I’m sure the coaches would like to see Trevor slide feet first as often as he can! He hasn’t run a whole lot so far, but he dove head-first for a first down a couple weeks ago and took a pretty good lick. Batson, by the way, has at least developed physically quite a bit since he arrived on campus. I saw him walk out of practice on Wednesday, and he has put on a lot of muscle. He was about as skinny as could be this time last year. Freshman WR Derion Kendrick played quarterback in high school, and he is currently #5 on the depth chart at QB.
Greg Huegel did not attempt a field goal last week and was just 1-3 the week before, so hopefully he will get back on track against Syracuse. I attribute one of those misses to the wind, though. That was the weekend the hurricane was on the coast, and the wind was gusting pretty hard to the right and against him on his first kick. Huegel is such an experienced veteran that I don’t think the Tigers need to worry about him. One position they will have their eye on is punter, though. Spiers has been a disappointment at times when they need a big punt—like a couple times against Alabama and the end of the game against A&M. Dabo has told us that Carson King is nipping at his heels, so if Spiers doesn’t start delivering consistently we could see a change there. Another good battle is going on at right guard between Sean Pollard and former grey shirt Cade Stewart, who are listed as co-starters for this game.
From an injury standpoint, the Tigers are in good shape. Kendall Joseph was back at practice this week and should be able to play Saturday. DT Jordan Williams was also back at practice for the first time since bruising his knee in the opener. The Tigers will be without the services of LB Chad Smith for the first half due to his targeting ejection in the first half last week.
Ordinarily, the drama that unfolded here in Clemson this week would be a huge distraction for a lot of teams. That’s just human nature. It can’t be easy to lose a teammate and leader like Kelly Bryant that’s been around as long as anyone on the team. However, that’s where the other leaders on the team step up and grab control of the locker room. This team has a ton of pride in what they do, and I think the fact that Syracuse is 4-0 and handed the Tigers their only regular season defeat last year have combined to counter all of the tumult this week. Dabo said the players have been focused in practice, and I expect the same at kickoff. I also think Brent Venables took last year’s loss personally, and he will have the defense ready to exact his vengeance. Dexter Lawrence told us point blank that the defense did not show up in last year’s game. That kind of candor is rare to hear, and you can bet he and the rest of the defense is looking for redemption.
Trevor Lawrence might not match Deshaun Watson’s record for touchdown passes by a freshman in his first start, but I won’t be shocked if he does. The offense will score early and often this time, and the Tigers will roar to another 5-0 start, handing the Cuse its first loss of the season and taking the driver’s seat in the ACC Atlantic.
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title, a 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and a 3rd National Title continues……
CLEMSON 41 Syracuse 20