X

Can Clemson Win the Title If Trevor Lawrence's Sophomore Slump Continues?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 29, 2019

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Clemson QB Trevor LawrenceGrant Halverson/Getty Images

Playing on the road against a North Carolina team that had just lost back-to-back games to Wake Forest and Appalachian State, the No. 1 Clemson Tigers were supposed to have another drama-free day at the office Saturday.

Per Vegas Insider, Dabo Swinney's guys closed as a 27.5-point favorite and were expected to win by at least a two-touchdown margin for the 15th consecutive time since a home scare against Syracuse almost exactly one year ago.

But thanks in large part to yet another mediocre showing from sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Clemson had to stop a two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter—a great decision by UNC coach Mack Brown, though a horrendous play callto escape from Chapel Hill with a 21-20 victory.

"We did enough to win, but I thought they outplayed us," Swinney told ESPN's Tom Luginbill after the game. "I thought they outcoached us."

Credit to the Tar Heels, who have been much better than anyone was expecting in Brown's return to the sideline after a five-year hiatus. That wasn't just lip service from Swinney. The 2-3 Tar Heels looked like the better team throughout the afternoon and are just a few plays away from being 5-0. The future is bright with true freshman Sam Howell in charge of that offense for the next few years.

The favorites to reach the national championship aren't supposed to survive and advance against teams that might be contenders in a year or two, though. As impressive as North Carolina was, Clemson's offensive execution was significantly more uninspiring.

As a result, Alabama-Clemson Part V doesn't feel as inevitable as it had for the past few months.

Before the season began, this offense was expected to challenge Alabama and Oklahoma for the title of most unstoppable in the nation. The Tigers have arguably the best running back in Travis Etienne, an outstanding trio of wide receivers in Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers and the golden-blond godsend of a quarterback who was being heralded as the "no questions asked" No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

How do you play defense against that collection of greats?

Trevor Lawrence (16), Travis Etienne (9) and Tee Higgins (5)
Trevor Lawrence (16), Travis Etienne (9) and Tee Higgins (5)Chris Seward/Associated Press

However, Lawrence has looked nothing like the stud who carved up Notre Dame and Alabama in last year's College Football Playoff, and that almost doomed the Tigers against UNC.

Running the show in the second half of a tight game for the first time in his college career, Lawrence looked rattled. Before connecting with Higgins on what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, he was just 7-of-16 for 42 yards in the second half.

Two of those completions went for negative yardage while a third was a four-yard checkdown to Etienne. When he tried to make moderately difficult passes, they were all over the place, oftentimes coming in too high to catch or behind the intended target.

Lawrence went without an interception for the second consecutive game, but he was fortunate in that regard. On a failed fourth down early in the third quarter, he threw it well behind Higgins, who deflected it up into the air and almost made a miraculous reception. That easily could have been an interception instead. Same goes for the 3rd-and-5 play on his 15-yard line two possessions later, on which Lawrence threw the ball directly into the hands of UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel.

Even on the touchdown pass, Lawrence missed the mark. Higgins had two steps on quarterback-turned-linebacker Chazz Surrattwho otherwise was a massive thorn in Clemson's side all gamebut he had to spin in a circle while the ball was in the air to adjust to a pass thrown behind him.

A year ago, Lawrence would have made that pass look like a 38-yard handoff, hitting his man perfectly in stride. But after throwing five interceptions in this season's first three games, the sophomore sometimes looks like he doesn't have faith in the arm that NFL franchises will tank in 2020 to acquire.

(Side note: How do I go about trademarking the "Win Never 4 Trevor!" battle cry that will ring out from depressed NFL fanbases next year?)

Though he has slipped all the way from 3-1 preseason Heisman odds to 50-1 heading into this week, it hasn't been all bad. Far from it. Lawrence still has flashes of brilliance during which we're reminded why he was a preseason co-favorite to win the stiff-armed trophy.

One of those extended flashes came during Clemson's touchdown drive late in the second quarter. He scrambled 16 yards for a first down on 3rd-and-4, connected with Higgins for 17 yards on 3rd-and-9 and ran it in from three yards out on 3rd-and-goal. He was brilliant during that four-minute stretch, making it seem like it would only be a matter of time before Clemson blew the game wide open after the intermission.

Pair that version of Lawrence with a defense that has held all five opponents below 300 yards of total offense, and Clemson not only could repeat as national champions but frankly should.

Richard Shiro/Associated Press

That version of Lawrence never made it out of the locker room for the second half, though, making Clemson look like a paper tiger that could get blown out of the water by a top-notch foe in a national semifinal on December 28.

The Tigers will still make the CFP. We're not worried about that. The rest of the ACC stinks out loud and just blew what will likely be its only legitimate chance to hand Clemson a regular-season loss. Unless South Carolina somehow flips the script during the next two months and becomes competent enough to knock off the Tigers on Nov. 30, 13-0 still feels like Clemson's destiny.

But whether a 14th and 15th win are to follow will be decided by Lawrence.

If this sophomore slump continues into the playoff, Clemson won't have the firepower to keep pace with an Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State or LSU, nor would it be likely to score more than a touchdown against the defense of a Georgia or Wisconsin.

If he gets back to being confident and crisp, get ready for a 30-game winning streak and debates about whether this two-time champ is the greatest college football mini-dynasty of all time.

No pressure, sunshine.

                               

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames. Odds via Caesars unless otherwise noted.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.