Why Clemson is a legit playoff contender

QB Deshaun Watson and some key replacements on defense have fueled the Tigers' undefeated start.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Why Clemson is a legit playoff contender

When you beat a team so bad that they go and fire their head coach after imposing a school record defeat on them, people start to ask questions. And the question right now is just how good Clemson is, after the Tigers’ 58-0 drubbing of Miami.

The AP voters have certainly taken notice, moving them up to No. 3 in the poll. If the season ended today, they’d have a strong case to make the playoff. The season doesn’t end today, obviously, but there are several reasons why this team shouldn’t be taken lightly. Let’s take a look:

The QB upgrade

Last year this was Cole Stoudt’s team. At least it started that way. The senior struggled for the most part and made way for the extremely exciting true freshman Deshaun Watson. Yet as good as Watson was, he couldn’t help from the sidelines, missing time after breaking a bone in his hand and then later after injuring his knee. Most significantly this meant playing just 18 snaps in a crucial encounter with Georgia Tech, and when Stoudt came in it might as well have been game over. He earned a terrible -5.7 grade, completing as many passes to the Yellow Jackets (three) as he did to his own team.

So this year the big difference is right there. Gone is a quarterback who had the fourth-lowest (out of 81) grade of all quarterbacks in the Power 5 in 2014, and in his stead is a guy in Watson who currently stands 21st out of 76. It’s not so much that Watson is the second coming, but he’s been so much better than Stoudt that he really allows the rest of the team to flourish.

The replacements have stepped up

Which is all the more remarkable considering who that “rest of the team” is. Gone are NFL first-round picks Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony, while lynchpins Grady Jarrett and Garry Peters also waved goodbye to their college careers for the greener pastures of the pros. Those are four of the best players in all of college football last year, and it shouldn’t have been so easy for Clemson to replace them.

But they have.

Shaq Lawson might not be the pass-rusher Vic Beasley is, but his motor and ability against the run have propelled him to a 11th overall in our edge defender rankings. At linebacker Ben Boulware has proved a force against the run, a handy blitzer and solid in coverage. He might not have the upside of Anthony, but he’s our seventh-ranked linebacker in 2015. On the back end, in safety Jayron Kearse the team has a guy who has the second-best grade at his spot, taking a big step forward on his impressive 2014 season.

Guys like Lawson, Boulware and Kevin Dodd, who were bit-part players a year ago, have emerged into full-time headaches for offensive coordinators. It’s the progressions of these players that makes Clemson a legit threat for some playoff action.

What’s next?

The formula is simple for Clemson. A dominating defense puts its offense in good position, and that offense that doesn’t make the kind of mistakes to puts it defense in bad ones. It’s simple enough in theory but difficult to execute, and so far Clemson has passed every test. There is, of course, one big obstacle still to come in the form of the Florida State Seminoles at home on Nov. 7, and the likes of QB Everett Golson, RB Dalvin Cook and DB Jalen Ramsey will certainly put this team to the test.

If that win that game convincingly, we won’t just be asking how good Clemson is. We’ll be asking just who can stop them.

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