SportsPulse: Miss college football action already? Well, Trysta Krick and Paul Myerberg tell us what to look forward to next season.
Alabama and Clemson will lose at least eight underclassmen in the wake of this week’s championship game, including Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and Clemson defensive linemen Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence, in the annual exodus of non-senior talent from college football’s two powers into the upper ranges of the upcoming NFL draft.
In addition to Williams, the Crimson Tide announced left tackle Jonah Williams, tight end Irv Smith Jr. and running back Josh Jacobs are all leaving. All four of Clemson’s losses come on defense: Ferrell, Lawrence, linebacker Tre Lamar and cornerback Trayvon Mullen.
Quinnen Williams was the Bowl Subdivision’s breakout star of this past season, as a largely overlooked first-year starter who blossomed into the most dominant interior lineman in the country. Once a five-star recruit, Jonah Williams slid into the starting lineup as a true freshman and quickly earned a reputation as an elite protector.
Smith finished fourth among Alabama receivers with 44 catches for 710 yards. Jacobs was a relative anomaly for the Crimson Tide, as a three-star recruit who played his way into an integral role on a roster teeming with five-star talent. He made his mark against Oklahoma and Clemson as a runner and receiver, showcasing the sort of skill set that comfortably into the NFL’s demand from the position.
Clemson’s losses on defense will further alter the personnel of a unit that finished second nationally in yards allowed per play and limited the Tide to a season-low 16 points. Losing Ferrell and Lawrence — both considered first-round talents — means the Tigers’ vaunted defensive line will bring back no starters from this past season, though contributors such as rising sophomore end Xavier Thomas are expected to blossom in more substantial roles.
Each team may see additional departures before Jan. 14, the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the upcoming draft. Alabama could lose a pair of defensive backs, safety Deionte Thompson and cornerback Savion Smith, and the status of linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Mack Wilson are uncertain. Clemson could also lose a pair of starters from its secondary, K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse, along with do-everything linebacker Isaiah Simmons, a redshirt sophomore.
Alabama and Clemson could meet again in the College Football Playoff — based on recent history, in fact, it seems a safe bet. But the two teams will be different in 2019, with the Tide set for a predictable series of changes on both sides of the ball and the Clemson defense pegged to undergo a drastic personnel overhaul on defense.
Not that this is unexpected, nor anything different than the norm. Alabama has lost at least two underclassmen following each of the past nine seasons. Clemson’s rise as a national power has been mirrored by its annual impact on the NFL draft. The Tigers lost Deshaun Watson, perhaps the greatest player in school history, and reached a national semifinal the following season with a new quarterback. A year after that, the Tigers won the national championship.
Besides, consider what returns. Alabama brings back Tua Tagovailoa. Running back Najee Harris should flourish in an expanded role. The Tide will return three starters on the offensive line and every piece of an outstanding crop of receivers. Defensively, rising senior Raekwon Davis will return, as will linebacker Dylan Moses and cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Add in another top-ranked recruiting class — one labeled by some recruiting experts as the most talented of the Nick Saban era — and the Tide should again be picked to win the SEC and reach the semifinals.
And Clemson brings back its entire compliment of offensive skill players, from the sensational Trevor Lawrence and his backfield counterpart Travis Etienne through a receiver corps rivaled only by Alabama’s among the nation’s best. While the defense rebuilds in personnel, the Tigers’ recent success breeds confidence: Brent Venables’ units have ranked in the top five nationally in yards allowed per play four times in the past five seasons.
So consult your programs for the next wave of stars from these two programs, but don’t bet against recent history. Alabama and Clemson have reloaded in the offseason before only to end each of the past four seasons in the same spot: as head-to-head rivals for the national championship.