3 biggest challenges for Clemson football in 2020

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Clemson football stands alone as a near invincible force in the ACC. However, Dabo Swinney’s team could face several frightening matchups this year and a couple of unusually difficult hurdles. This strange COVID-19 altered season leaves the Tigers somewhat vulnerable to their own youth. Keep an eye on how Swinney and his coaching staff address these three challenges.

3. Developing pass-catchers

The Tigers have a long line of great receivers. Along with Alabama and LSU, Clemson is one of college football’s top wide receiver factories. Swinney’s team anticipated having star junior Justyn Ross for the 2020 season, but he might never play for the Tigers again.

According to The Athletic’s Grace Raynor, Ross had a congenital fusion is his neck/spine, which required surgery during the offseason. Many analysts believed Ross was a future first-round pick in the NFL Draft and the nation’s best receiver behind LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. Ross’ injury and Tee Higgins entering the NFL left Clemson without any experienced star receivers.

In its first two games, Clemson faced easy competition. Wake Forest and Citadel rolled over before Swinney’s team, which prevented us from seeing starters in extended action. The Tigers don’t know how freshman E.J. Williams and sophomores Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata will perform against Miami or Notre Dame. Even tight end Braden Galloway, who flashed during his limited action over the past two years, hasn’t played in more than three games in a single season.

Most of Clemson’s developing pass-catchers will face trials by fire. Seniors Amari Rodgers and Travis Etienne are the only receiving threats for Clemson that have consistently played against top-level competition. Even Etienne only became more involved in the passing game this past season. Trevor Lawrence’s offense faces many unknowns this year.

2. D’Eriq King’s versatility

The Miami Hurricanes didn’t have a spot on the Week 1 AP Top 25 Poll despite the arrival of transfer quarterback D’Eriq King. In 2018, King led the Houston Cougars to an 8-5 record while throwing and running for 50 total touchdowns. He amassed 674 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns in his 11 appearances that season.

The Hurricanes began gaining traction when the AP removed Big Ten teams from the Week 2 poll. Miami placed 17th in the country, only trailing North Carolina, Notre Dame and Clemson in the ACC. After a dominant 47-34 win against Louisville where King threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns, Miami is ranked 12th in the latest poll.

Clemson features one of the nation’s best defensive lines. However, without the versatile Isaiah Simmons at linebacker, the Tigers lack a natural counteragent to King’s quickness. Even if Clemson’s defensive linemen swarm him, there’s always a chance for escape. This highlights perhaps Clemson’s greatest weakness defensively: over pursuit leaving the field open.

Before the season started, I anticipated Notre Dame being Clemson’s only significant challenger. Instead, the Oct. 10 showdown against Miami could pose the biggest problem.

1. Lack of experience against major opponents

This final point ties into some of the arguments I made about Clemson’s inexperienced receivers. Despite owning the country’s top-ranking quarterback and the presumptive future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, the Tigers are more inexperienced this year than in previous seasons.

Clemson sent both of its starting safeties and cornerback A.J. Terrell to the NFL this past year. That unit also lost Logan Rudolph, Simmons, Chad Smith and reports in August indicated that Xavier Thomas is redshirting this year. The offensive line also lost several significant pieces, including All-American guard John Simpson.

As always, Clemson has some of the country’s best college players, but many of these new starters still need to learn what it means to be champions. Four of the team’s remaining games are against ranked opponents, and that’s not counting the ACC Championship game or College Football Playoff. The young Tigers have a lot to learn if they want to make it that far.