Since the College Football Playoff began in the 2014-15 football season, only one team has appeared in it every year: Alabama. The next most appearances? Clemson, with three.
That’s the new normal for the Tigers who, along with the Crimson Tide and a few others, are firmly entrenched as one of the few true college football powers. Despite losing the prolific Deshaun Watson to graduation, they returned to the CFP last year, where they lost to — you guessed it — Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
That’s a disappointment for a program that will be seeking its second championship in three seasons and third overall. By all accounts, things line up well for Clemson to be among one of the last four teams playing for a spot in the title game on Dec. 29.
Here are five reasons why the Tigers could make the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year in 2018:
1. Strength at quarterback
Kelly Bryant? Trevor Lawrence? Someone else?
We’re no closer to knowing who will be the starting quarterback for Clemson when it takes on Furman on Sept. 1 than we were before spring workouts began. While the pressure is on coach Dabo Swinney to make the best call for the team, the Tigers could be facing worse problems right now.
Bryant, of course, led Clemson to within a game of playing for its second straight national championship. Lawrence is a heralded 5-star recruit — who may be better than Bryant.
With those options available to them — don’t forget Hunter Johnson — quarterback is a position that won’t be lacking for the Tigers in 2018, no matter who starts.
2. A corps of elite recruits that could see the field right away
Swinney has been known for recruiting at a high level. That was evident in landing Lawrence, ranked as the No. 1 player in his class regardless of position in the 247Sports composite. But that’s only half of the story.
Swinney was able to lure a pair of blue-chip defensive line prospects in Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry, who won’t start in 2018 but will see plenty of time on the field. Jackson Carman, the country’s No. 2 offensive lineman, pledged to Clemson over a chance to play close to home at Ohio State and should get into the front-five rotation rather quickly. Derion Kendrick, who had a great spring game, has been compared to Sammy Watkins by offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.
There’s others on the list, but you can see that Clemson’s talent extends well past its group of starters. And those freshmen will play a big role in 2018.
3. The return of its entire defensive line
This has been mentioned so many times that the sheer significance of it could be lost: Clemson returns its entire defensive line in 2018.
That means that junior Dexter Lawrence, seniors Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins, and junior Clelin Ferrell — a draft-eligible prospect after redshirting in 2015 — come back for what they hope is a championship season. In total, that’s 209 tackles, 45 tackles for a loss and 25 sacks among those four players alone.
While passing on the NFL was a personal risk for Bryant, Wilkins and Ferrell, getting the trio back was a huge offseason win for both Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The potential for Lawrence to grow even more in his third year with the team should put this unit up against any defensive line in the country.
4. A dynamic running back tandem in Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster
Clemson fans knew that they could probably expect a strong sophomore season from Tavien Feaster. They didn’t know what they’d be getting in Travis Etienne, a Louisiana product who spurned LSU to attend school out of state. That changed in a hurry. As a freshman, Etienne scored 13 touchdowns and ran for 766 yards on 107 attempts, an outstanding 7.2 yards per carry.
Alongside Feaster, who ran for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns on an equal number of carries as Etienne, the two players provide an added dimension to Clemson’s offense. It’s easily the best running back tandem in the ACC and probably one of the best in the country.
Even with or without Bryant’s dual-threat tendencies (he rushed for 11 touchdowns and 665 yards on 192 carries last year), you have a recipe for a team that can rack up the yardage on the ground in 2018.
5. Depth at key positions
We already mentioned the depth that Clemson has at quarterback. But a look at other important positions reveals that the Tigers are well stocked where it matters.
Senior Adam Choice, who has slid down the depth chart at running back due to the emergence of Etienne and Feaster, is still a remarkably serviceable back. Thomas and Henry could work their way into the defensive line rotation to spell Bryant and Ferrell at the two ends. Albert Huggins, Wilkins’ backup at one tackle spot, can provide relief on the interior.
That’s the sign of great coaching and recruiting by the Clemson staff, and with several high-level recruits coming to the program, that’s a trend that will continue.