What exactly makes an NCAA football team “upset-proof?”
Ask Dabo Swinney, the mastermind of the defending FBS champion Clemson Tigers. His squad’s run for the grail was almost derailed early in 2018-19 as Texas A&M threatened in the 4th quarter at College Station.
Tense 4th quarters against the mid-card of the Power-5 just won’t do as far as Death Valley is concerned. Swinney reacted to the close call by phasing-out former Clemson QB Kelly Bryant and giving Trevor Lawrence a chance to start fresh out of prep school.
Culture warriors who scream that 18 and 19-year olds are “CHILDDD-REEENNN!” must have been awfully shocked during the College Football Playoff in January, as the teenage Tiger quarterback (and his right-hand man Justyn Ross, also a freshman) tore up the grown men from Notre Dame and Alabama en route to a runaway national-title triumph.
Lawrence’s phenomenal accuracy and poise did more than give Swinney’s offense an added dynamic weapon. It made the Clemson Tigers upset-proof. It was hard enough to play against an NFL-level defensive line when not losing by 14 points before the secondary can get its bearings. Clemson waltzed through an ACC Championship Game against Pittsburgh while likely (and eventual) CFP final opponent Alabama had to deal with an angry Georgia side in the SEC’s title scrum.
Bookmakers aren’t quite sure who’s going to win the SEC in 2019-20, though Alabama and Georgia and LSU are all likely candidates.
However, the ACC is a done deal – at least according to CFB betting sites and the gambling public.
Clemson is currently a 1-to-4 wager to win the conference again at Sportsbetting.ag.
Is the (-400) Futures Line on Clemson Warranted?
To offer just a little perspective, a (-400) futures line is a whopper of a high-risk betting market. Recreational $100 limit gamblers can make only $25 off the line even if Clemson prevails in November once more, and high-rollers must be prepared for a crash landing.
The now-victorious USWNT didn’t even have a “minus” futures line-to-win going into the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Clemson’s 1-to-4 line to defend the ACC crown in 2019 puts the Tigers closer to “Team USA Basketball” territory as a prohibitive favorite that can only lose if it chokes.
Lawrence and Ross will continue to develop, giving pundits around the country reason to tout them as contenders for a 3rd national title in 5 years. As Mike Greenberg put it after the Clemson-Alabama final, it’s not often you look at the field and see a pair of teenagers who are ready for the NFL right now. It’s even rarer to see a pair of 18-year-old kids who could obviously and immediately improve any National Football League team they were put on.
But the gridiron has a way of balancing things out. Tua Tagovailoa looked like a perfect QB machine for much of 2017 and 2018 before defenses (like Clemson) figured out how to defend his dual-threat. No offense is unstoppable forever and in every circumstance.
I’m not going to assume that opposing coaches will “figure out” Lawrence and Ross. That’s ridiculous, just like when lazy NFL fans dismiss the 11-on-11 running game as something NFL DCs will “figure out” given enough time. As if anyone would ever discover that 11 isn’t a larger number than 10.
At the same time, offense is only a single phase of the game. If Clemson’s odds-to-win are currently shrunken too short, it’s because a star QB or a star WR will always get more publicity than a defensive front-7. Fans look at the headlines and assume that scoring points is more important than defense…but a defense is how you stop the other school from scoring points.
The “Power Rangers” on the D-line are mostly gone. Teams will try to get out front and out-score Clemson in the early going, putting the squad’s nimble rocket-armed QB in harm’s way in the 2nd half. Anything but an elite batch of DL replacements won’t “proof” the Tigers against that.
Clemson’s defense can’t possibly be as good as last season’s unit, can it? It better be if the Tigers are going to justify a microscopic betting line-to-win arguably the deepest league in the FBS.
Let’s take a closer look at the defending champs…and their rivals in the ACC.
Clemson ((-400) Odds-to-Win 2019 ACC Championship at Sportsbetting.ag)
Let’s not forget Travis Etienne. The 5’10” junior RB was explosive almost every time he touched the ball in 2018-19 with an 8.1 yard average and 24 rushing touchdowns. Sophomore Lyn-J Dixon is a more-than-capable backup and 3rd-down option in the offensive backfield.
With an offensive line led by 6’4” 330 lb. senior John Simpson, a top prospect for the 2020 NFL Draft, it’s safe to say the Tigers will be able to gallop for 300 and 400 yards at a time against lesser foes without asking Trevor Lawrence to break much of a sweat.
There are no likely All-American replacements for bygone defensive-line studs like Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins. Instead, Swinney will go with a less-experienced rotation of roll players up front in ’19. But even if opposing QBs see clearly to the sideline and to the pylons, there might be an extremely small window of time to throw the ball and not fall prey to a pick.
Clemson may boast the most talented crop of defensive backs in the country, led by physical junior Isaiah Simmons and redshirt senior Tanner Muse. Simmons recorded 88 tackles and 9 TFL in 2018-19 while Muse made 61 tackles and reeled-in 2 interceptions.
Long-time kicker Greg Huegel is gone after 4 seasons, and return specialist Amari Rodgers must be replaced after going down with a torn ACL in spring practice.
Mark Richt is out of the head coaching picture at The U after a mostly-disastrous 2018 campaign in which the Miami Hurricanes lost 4 in a row in mid-season and were splattered 35-3 by Wisconsin in the Pinstripe Bowl.
New skipper Manny Diaz will try to do better in 2019.
The former coach turned out to be a 1-trick pony – able to maintain a stacked program at Georgia but unable to rebuild a storied program known for great quarterback and wide-receiver play.
QB wasn’t exactly a “great” position for the ‘Canes last season. Richt is gone but the Miami QB controversy remains, with redshirt sophomore N’Kosi Perry, redshirt freshman Jarren Williams, and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell expected to vie for the coveted role.
Jeff Thomas is a quality returning WR for any of the trio to pass to, but he needs a partner-in-crime. Buffalo graduate transfer K.J. Osborn hopes to be the injection of speed and skill the offense needs after recording 53 receptions for 892 yards and 7 touchdowns last season. Hopefully he won’t roll over and croak in big moments, as his former program did against Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game last year.
The bright spot in 2018 was defense, in which the Hurricanes ranked 4th in the FBS. Quick junior DL Jonathan Garvin is a monster for any back to handle, and Shaquille Quarterman is a returning All-ACC linebacker who posted double-digit tackles for loss in his sophomore season.
Florida State (+2000)
Willie Taggart’s FSU is dealing with a QB conundrum as well, with 6’5” sophomore James Blackman attempting to fend-off a challenge from Wisconsin graduate transfer Alex Hornibrook.
Tamorrion Terry will be the top target for the starting signal-caller. If he’s never had the nickname “Tall Terry” I’ll eat my hat – Tamorrion ran past defenders for a 21.3 yard reception average and 8 touchdown grabs for the Seminoles last year.
Junior Cam Akers looks to return to form after a sluggish 706-yard and 6-touchdown sophomore campaign. Much of Akers’ success will depend on the improvement on an offensive line that struggled for Taggart in ’18.
Hamsah Nasirildeen and others are ready to shine in the front-7 for a potentially elite defense. But FSU was terrible 11-on-11 in the kicking game in Taggart’s maiden season, a bad omen for a coach who already alienated the Pac-12 with a bolt-for-Benjamins in ’17.
6’2” redshirt sophomore Tommy DeVito replaces Eric Dungey’s 2,868 passing yards, 754 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns for Syracuse last season.
Or does he? I never like that trope in the offseason, so-and-so “replaces” the “lost” yards of a departing player. As if the team would have gained 0 yards if the former star wasn’t in the games.
The Orangemen will gain more than 0 yards on offense this year. Syracuse is a program that keeps getting better under Dino Babers, whose charges – it’s so easy to forget – knocked off Clemson in a memorable scrum less than 2 seasons ago.
DeVito will be flanked by a skilled crop of running backs, led by senior Moe Neal and junior Abdul Adams.
What I really like about the Orange in 2019-20 is the pass rush. Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are double-digit sack hounds who often stop to punish opposing ball-carriers in the backfield for good measure.
Syracuse also returns defending Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt who nailed 30 out of 34 kicks in his freshman season.
If Babers’ team can stifle opposing passing games with pressure, move the ball when necessary, and kick field goals in the clutch? That 3rd game of the year against visiting Clemson could turn out to be for a whole bunch of marbles, especially as it is surrounded by cupcakes and off-weeks.
Virginia Tech (+2000)
VT head coach Justin Fuentes guided the Hokies through another disappointing season in 2018, as QB Ryan Willis filled-in nobly for injured quarterback Josh Jackson but could not stem the tide during a killer losing streak in autumn.
Willis is expected to start in 2019, and the program is counting on a young OL to provide enough time for the junior to find dangerous receivers in the open field. Damon Hazleton Jr. is an excellent all-around pass catcher, and sophomore Tre Turner is expected to have a monster campaign after recording a 20.6 yard reception average and 4 touchdowns in his debut.
Will the defense play up to the usual Blacksburg standard? Rayshard Ashby is short for a junior LB, but had triple-digit tackles last season. Senior defensive back Reggie Floyd leads the secondary.
Despite losing All-ACC wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins has the Virginia Cavalier attack primed for another lively season. Perkins was fantastic in 2018, passing for 2,680 yards, rushing for 923 yards, and accounting for 34 total touchdowns.
The receiving corps will lose a bit of material, but P.K. Kier (who must have gotten tired of being erroneously listed as a kicker in his high school days) is expected to step up at RB with the departure of 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis.
You can’t make an underdog bid for the ACC Coastal crown without a tough defense, though. Bronco Mendenhall is an above-average FBS defensive mind, but he needs talent on the gridiron to success. Charles Snowden has an opportunity to make a real impact in the conference as a towering linebacker with mobility, and DB Bryce Hall is coming off a terrific campaign.
The Cavaliers face a manageable schedule that avoids a match-up with Clemson and affords an off-week prior to a trip to Miami.
North Carolina State (+2800)
I’d have imagined NC State being a lot less-popular futures bet than 28-to-1 considering that Ryan Finley has left campus, and those “Casual Joe” gamblers often glance at the QB position only.
1,000-yard rusher Reggie Gallaspy II has departed too, leaving sophomore Ricky Person Jr. to carry the load. Is Las Vegas paying attention to defense for a change?
Maybe. But there’s no incredible batch of recruits to help and little to build on in forming a Clemson-like defense in Raleigh. Senior James Smith-Williams fronts a defensive line that struggled in 2018.
PK Christopher Dunn (this one’s name isn’t “PK,” he’s actually a PK) proved to be a reliable weapon in ’18 but the Wolfpack are still searching for an ace in the return game.
Notes on ACC Underdogs and Sleepers
Boston College (+5000) was my sweetheart pick to win the ACC last season. ((+5000) is this season’s odds, just so you know.) The Eagles ran-up a nice early-season record and played bravely in big match-ups, but were unable to improve on a 7-5 regular-season record that is becoming the new normal in Beantown under Steve Addazio.
Junior RB A.J. Dillon could be ready for a real breakout season, but the BC recruiting staff has done a lackluster job with only a 13th-ranked ACC recruiting class in 2019. That’s bad news for a program that already needed more, not less, elite student-athletes on the roster.
New Georgia Tech (+5000) head coach Geoff Collins has spent the offseason hinting to reporters about bringing the Yellow Jackets into the 21st century, away from all that silly “11 is a higher number than 10” crap on the Flats under now-retired Flexbone guru Paul Johnson.
Johnson’s genius was enough to beat Dak Prescott and the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl, but it wasn’t enough to “attract NFL players” to Atlanta as Geoff Collins thinks his program will now start to do.
Sure…lots of blue-chip NFL prospects are just itching to study calculus until 5 AM. It totally beats the fluff classes and supermodel-dating of USC. Strip away the noise and Georgia Tech has decided to become Vanderbilt for the foreseeable future.
Can Pittsburgh (+5000) repeat a surprise run to the ACC Championship Game in its 4th season under Pat Narduzzi? All eyes will be on junior QB Kenny Pickett who hopes to improve upon his 1,969 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018, but the 2019 Pitt recruiting class is as sorry as Boston College’s.
Look for former Appalachian State skipper Scott Satterfield to make an impact as the head coach at Louisville (+10000). As the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons once proved, Bobby Petrino can leave some huge messes on the floor…but it doesn’t always take too long for a competent new CEO to clean them up.
Finally, Duke (+6600) head coach David Cutcliffe and A Prairie Home Companion radio host Garrison Keillor are the same person.
Orange you glad I’m in charge of football predictions and not comedy scripts?