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Syracuse football 2021 opponent preview: Clemson Tigers

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We meet again on a Friday night at the Dome...

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’re less than three months away from Syracuse Orange football kickoff! “Get to Know” pieces have begun, preview magazines are all picking SU to finish last in the division and that familiar sense of dread mixed with mild optimism is starting to creep in.

So with the start of the 2021 season clearly getting closer, we’re continuing our early looks at all 12 Syracuse opponents on this year’s schedule. A couple weeks ago (sorry, vacation got in the way), we dove into Wake Forest. This time around, it’s the:

Clemson Tigers

School: Clemson University

Mascot: Tigers

#BRAND Slogan(s): #ALLIN

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: #CALLIN... Finebaum to complain about DISRESPECK or “Listen to our tale of woe about no one believing in us despite six straight trips to the College Football Playoff”

Recommended Blog: Shakin’ the Southland

Conference: ACC

History vs. Syracuse: The Tigers are 7-2 against the Orange all-time, but it’s been far from that one-sided. SU owns a 41-0 Gator Bowl win back in 1996 and a monumental upset of Clemson from the 2017 season (which you’re very familiar with). Though Syracuse has only beaten the Tigers once since joining the ACC, they’ve kept three additional games within 10 points. Last year’s game was also interesting for a bit despite the clear gap between the programs.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Coach: Dabo Swinney, 14th season. As the folklore goes at this point, Swinney played at Alabama then went right into coaching at his alma mater. He sold real estate between 2001 and 2003 before heading to Clemson. His recruiting prowess kept elevating him on staff before he got the interim gig in 2008. He’s gone 140-33 ever since while turning the Tigers into a national power. Dabo’s also said a lot of controversial and nonsensical things in that time, but it has yet to slow down his ability to bring talent in the door. As head coach, he’s won two national titles and seven ACC championships (including the last six in a row).

2020 Record: (10-2) (9-1)

Recapping Last Season

Just more of the usual for Clemson. Their lone regular season loss was to Notre Dame, but they avenged that and then some in a 34-10 stomping in the ACC Championship Game. Clemson was never ranked lower than fourth all season, even after losing by 21 to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

The Tigers were a top-10 total offense while tallying up over 502 yards per game, and tied for third in the country at 43.5 points per outing. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was one of just 10 players in the country to top 3,000 passing yards during the shortened season. He threw 24 touchdown passes (five picks), and added another 203 yards and eight scores on the ground. Travis Etienne capped off an impressive career with over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs. Clemson had eight different players catch at least 16 passes, led by Amari Rodgers, who had 77 receptions for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns.

While the offense was great, of course, the defense has really been the calling card for this program since Swinney hired Brent Venables in 2012. Clemson allowed just 327 yards per game (15th in the country) and 20.2 points (18th) despite the fact that both Notre Dame and Ohio State managed to score more than 45 points on them. Clemson was No. 1 in the nation in sacks, led by Baylon Spector with just 4.5. They were also top-10 in interceptions with 14 on the year.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

2021 Season Outlook

Clemson’s schedule looks a lot like it normally does, with one major wrinkle. They’ll kick off vs. Georgia in a major test for both teams to start the season, play through the ACC slate, and then face rival South Carolina to close out the campaign. Making the College Football Playoff is still the expectation — however, it’s going to be tougher to do that without the team’s top three offensive weapons.

On that note, Lawrence, Etienne and Rodgers are all off to the NFL, so the Tigers are certainly hitting the reset button on that side of the ball. D.J. Uiagalelei appeared in 10 games last year and threw for 914 yards and five scores, with another 60 yards and four TDs on the ground. Senior Lyn-J Dixon is the team’s top returning rusher with 190 yards last year, but he topped 500 yards on the ground in both 2018 and 2019. Clemson’s receivers aren’t a certainty, but obviously there’s talent on the roster. We don’t know if Justyn Ross will be able to play this year yet (he missed last season with a spinal condition), but beyond him, tight end Braden Galloway is the top returning target. Out wide, E.J. Williams is the top returning pass-catcher, with 24 grabs for 306 yards and two TDs.

Defensively, Derion Kendrick transferred out to Georgia and linebacker Mike Jones Jr. headed to LSU, while other players on that side of the ball departed as well. At the same time, nearly every one of the team’s top 10 players by tackles for loss returns, including freshman Myles Murphy (11.5 TFLs). All but two interceptions — one each from Kendrick and Jones — return as well. This was a young defense last year that got a lot of playing time, and as always, Clemson’s reserves also saw the field a bunch during numerous blowout wins.

Syracuse Game Date: Friday, October 15

Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 7%

Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:

Look, recent history vs. Clemson has been entertaining, as we know. And even in losses lately, Syracuse does seem to have something figured out against the Tigers that few others can really claim. Having this game on a Friday night at the Dome nearly four years to the day of the last upset could bring some good vibes for fans and the team overall. But ultimately, barring QB injury (there isn’t necessarily a ton of depth there for Clemson in 2021), Clemson should win comfortably here. Hopefully SU just doesn’t get too banged up in the process.