How wide is UM/Clemson talent gap? Analyst weighs in and something surprising uncovered

Barry Jackson
·7 min read

Since the start of the 2015 season, Clemson has gone 72-5 and Miami 43-25. During that time, the Tigers won two national titles and the Atlantic Coast Conference championship every one of those years, while the Canes churned through more coaches and coordinators, saw a bunch of NFL washouts leave early and achieved next to nothing of significance.

For most of the past five years, the gap between the programs has been enormous. Whether it has closed much will become clear when the top ranked Tigers meet No. 7 UM on Saturday night in Death Valley (7:30 p.m., ABC).

Recruiting guru Larry Blustein, who is knowledgeable about both rosters, said the talent gap is still pretty sizable but “has closed a little bit because of Miami’s grad transfers” — quarterback D’Eriq King, defensive end Quincy Roche, right tackle Jarrid Williams and kicker Jose Borregales — “and the two freshmen running backs,” Jaylon Knighton and Don Chaney.

But he agrees that King and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee could skew that overall talent gap somewhat and make the game more competitive Saturday.

“Nobody so far this season has posed a threat to Miami,” Blustein said. “Clemson will be able to key on King, can put a safety on him and shadow him. They are playing a team that can afford to gamble and can concentrate on guys that can hurt you, like King and Brevin Jordan. There won’t be blown coverages like Louisville had against Miami. The question is can Miami’s offensive line withstand Clemson’s quality defensive front seven?”

That last point is a big concern for Miami on Saturday; Blustein said the quality of the offensive lines remains the biggest gap in personnel between the teams.

Make no mistake: Even beyond quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Clemson is still “stacked,” Blustein said. “Miami is jumping for joy because they got [a commitment from four-star Miami Palmetto High defensive tackle Leonard Taylor]. Clemson gets three or four of those guys every year.”

UM coach Manny Diaz pointed to elite QB play as the area which initially allowed Clemson to pull ahead of everyone in the ACC in the past decade.

“If you look at the way Clemson has built their program over the last 10 years,” Diaz said, “and how Dabo Swinney had to do it in the early days and get their culture right and recruiting right, what sent them over the stratosphere was when they started getting that special quarterback — Tajh Boyd, Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence. When you make a mistake, they will punish you. That’s what good teams do. But we still have a chance to control our performance.”

But in comparing the talent for these two programs, we stumbled upon two surprising things that warrant further evaluation:

According to Rivals’ high-school rankings, UM and Clemson each have 10 starters who were in the top 250 of their recruiting classes, numbers that can vary slightly depending on lineups on a particular day.

But here’s the important caveat: The Tigers’ top 250 players were ranked much higher than Miami’s, on average.

Miami, on offense, starts players ranked 28th nationally in their recruiting class (receiver Mark Pope), 49th (tight end Brevin Jordan), 61st (guard D.J. Scaife), 81st (running back Cam’Ron Harris) and 123rd (receiver Mike Harley Jr.).

Clemson, on offense, typically starts players ranked No. 1 (Lawrence), 16th (left tackle Jackson Carman), 36th (receiver Cornell Powell), 120th (guard Will Putnam) and 186th (receiver Amari Rogers).

Clemson’s five top 250 recruits on offense are clearly better than Miami’s five; no surprise there.

On defense, UM has five Rivals top 250 starters: end Jaelan Phillips (No. 6 overall when he signed with UCLA), cornerback Al Blades Jr. (59th), safety Bubba Bolden (61st when he signed with Southern Cal), defensive tackle Nesta Silvera (121) and striker Gilbert Frierson (235).

Clemson has five top 250 starters on defense: cornerbacks Andrew Booth (14th) and Derion Kendrick (30th) and defensive linemen Tyler Davis (175) and Justin Mascoll (248) and KJ Henry (26th), who started the Wake Forest game.

This is flabbergasting: How in the world did rank Miami’s recruiting classes better than Clemson’s in both 2017 and 2018? ranked Miami’s class better in 2017 and the two nearly even in 2018.

Did the recruiting services simply get it wrong? Or did Miami do a poor job of developing or utilizing its players? Yes, yes and yes (the last two of those ‘yes’ answers apply to the offense). There were other factors, including players transferring or unwisely leaving early to turn pro.

In 2017, Rivals rated UM’s class 11th and Clemson’s 22nd, and it’s fair for Canes fans to cite that and ask why the heck the Canes have been stratospheres away from Clemson’s level in 2018 and 2019.

But here’s why that 2017 ranking will be of no help to UM this week: Of the 24 players in that highly-rated UM class, 13 aren’t on the team and three more are sitting out this season.

The 13 gone include players who regrettably left early (rookies Jeff Thomas and Trajan Bandy, neither of whom is employed by an NFL team); Packers backup defensive end Jon Garvin; Seahawks No. 4 tailback DeeJay Dallas; a top defensive recruit (Deonte Johnson) who left for Oregon; and several disappointments (Jhavonte Dean, Kai -Leon Herbert among them). Herbert, a backup, opted out of playing this season.

Conversely, 10 of the 14 players signed by Clemson that year have either been high NFL draft picks or are contributing for the Tigers this season, including A.J. Terrell and Tee Higgins (the 11th and 33rd picks in April’s draft); Rodgers; and Travis Etienne, who has gone from a three-star back unranked in Rivals’ top 250 to perhaps the best running back in America.

So even in a year that recruiting services say UM had a better class, Clemson ends up ahead.

Same, to a lesser extent, with 2018. Rivals ranked UM’s class sixth and Clemson’s eighth.

But UM saw four blue-chippers from that class transfer: five-star running back Lorenzo Lingard, four-star receivers Brian Hightower and Marquez Ezzard and quarterback Jarren Williams. And while Clemson’s best player from that class (Lawrence) opted to play this season, UM’s best player from that class (Greg Rousseau) did not.

Once again, a win for Clemson.

Incidentally, in 2019, Rivals rated Clemson’s class ninth, UM’s 35th.

In 2020, Rivals said Clemson’s was second, UM’s 13th.

For 2021, Rivals has Miami 9th and Clemson 11th; 247 has Clemson fifth and UM 10th.

The NFL Draft is perhaps the best barometer for the talent being produced by these programs, and that has overwhelmingly favored Clemson in recent years. The Tigers have seven players picked in the first two rounds in the past two years (including two in the top 10). UM has none.

For the 2021 draft, ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Lawrence first and Etienne 23rd on his Big Board. Rousseau, who isn’t playing this season and will be turning pro, is 18th.

Also, Clemson has five first-team preseason All-ACC picks (Lawrence, Etienne, Carman, Davis and Kendrick). UM has one (Jordan).

But here are the three key factors (all pretty obvious) that might have somewhat closed the gap this year: King isn’t anything close to Lawrence as an NFL prospect but looks like UM’s best QB in many years; Lashlee’s system has enormously elevated an underachieving offense; and Borregalas’ value cannot be understated.

Whether those factors will be enough to keep Saturday’s game close into the fourth quarter will be fascinating.

Here’s my Tuesday piece on the Dolphins’ decision to stick with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback and coaches discussing Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa.

Here’s my Tuesday piece with lots of Dolphins personnel nuggets.

Here’s my Tuesday media column with the answer to whether more people locally watched the Dolphins or Heat on Sunday.