With nine games of college experience, five of them as a starter, under his belt true freshman Trevor Lawrence is already playing like a veteran. That is according to his coach Dabo Swinney, who is as confident as ever in Lawrence's ability to carry No. 2 Clemson to its goals of winning its division, the ACC, its state and the final game of the season, which nearly all of us expect to take place in the College Football Playoff.
That playoff path runs through Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, this weekend as Clemson meets No. 17 Boston College on Saturday night. The environment in Alumni Stadium should be one of the most unique in Lawrence's young career as a starter; after all, it's the first time a ranked Boston College team has played a game against a ranked opponent since the 2007 ACC Championship Game, and it's just the seventh home game ever between two ranked teams (first since No. 20 Boston College defeated No. 21 Maryland in 2006).
When you take the setting, the opponent and the stakes into consideration, it's become clear that Saturday night will be the toughest test Lawrence will face between now and the postseason.
Lawrence was in cruise control for most of Clemson's 77-16 romp of Louisville last week. He only threw the ball 12 times for 59 yards, hitting on a few key third down and red zone plays (two touchdowns, one interception) but mostly taking a backseat to the Tigers' dominant ground game.
Clemson's commitment to the run has been at times a necessity, like when Lawrence was knocked out of a close game against Syracuse just days after Kelly Bryant announced his intentions to leave the program. Swinney told his coaches in that game it was time to get "old school," and the Tigers' have been one of the best teams in the trenches ever since. Currently, Clemson ranks No. 1 in the country in both yards per carry (6.94) and yards per carry allowed (2.24).
Boston College coach Steve Addazio is not one to be fooled into thinking that Lawrence is by any means less of a threat just because Clemson has leaned heavily on the rushing attack here in recent weeks.
"It's clear to me that, Dabo and his staff, they know exactly what they're doing," Addazio said Wednesday. "Here's a guy that throws the ball really, really at a high level. I mean, he's very accurate, he's athletic, he can run the read zone game. But he's an elite thrower. And so it gives them a dominant run game and a dominant throw game."
The Clemson staff hasn't had to really push the limits on Lawrence because its been in blowouts, but we're expecting some more resistance from Boston College. Last year, this game -- played in Death Valley -- was 7-7 in the fourth quarter before Clemson hit on a few explosive plays to get control of the game. When you consider the different ways that the Eagles will be able to test Lawrence, it's worth noting this game as a preview of how the freshman might stack up against elite competition at the end of the year.
There are the three big tests Lawrence will face against Boston College. If he passes them all, Clemson will head into the final stretch of the season even more confident in the freshman's ability to lead the team to another College Football Playoff title.
Test No. 1: Playing under pressure
Clemson hasn't had to face a pair of pass rushers quite like Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray all year. Ray, a senior, has been stellar stepping into the lineup after Harold Landry's departure to the NFL and entering this week he's tied for No. 4 nationally with nine sacks on the season. Some of Ray's ability to create havoc in the backfield is a credit to Allen, who has developed into one of the best defensive linemen in the country over the last two years.
"I just think that I've been around a lot of guys, and his rare combination of power and athleticism and speed I think is probably surprising to some people," Addazio said of Allen. "He's an elite pass rusher, but he's got great power, and he can really play well against the run. He's been dominant all year, and I would expect he'll be a real factor on Saturday night."
Allen (12.5) and Ray (12.0) both rank in the top-10 among ACC players in tackles for loss and will be looking to get Lawrence off his spot and out of rhythm on every passing play. Few of Clemson's previous opponents have been able to get after the quarterback like Boston College, and there's a guarantee that whoever is waiting for the Tigers in the postseason will have a defensive front more comparable to the Eagles than what Lawrence faced against Louisville.
Test No. 2: Making the right reads
Boston College has one of the best secondaries in the ACC, led by overlooked prospects who have developed into all-conference caliber players as juniors and seniors. Senior safeties Lukas Denis and Will Harris were both preseason All-ACC candidates and will likely be playing in the NFL soon, but the big breakout in that defensive backfield has been junior cornerback Hamp Cheevers. After losing two cornerbacks to the NFL Draft, Cheevers has had the kind of season that will add his name to the growing list of Eagles in the NFL. He is tied for second nationally and leads the ACC with five interceptions and ranks among the top-15 nationally in passes defended.
When you watch Boston College's defense on film, what stands out to coaches is the ability for this veteran secondary to mix coverages between zone and man and maintain the same high level of execution. The goal for the Eagles has to be to create confusion for Lawrence, mask coverages and try to bait him into making the wrong throw. Of every team that Clemson will play in the 2018 regular season, none will be a better test of Lawrence's ability to diagnose a defense in those split seconds before and after the snap.
Test No. 3: Be the steady hand
Swinney says that Lawrence is playing like a veteran, but Lawrence has yet to shoulder enough pressure for the Tigers to truly be sure he can check every box as a quarterback capable of leading a team to a national title. We won't know that until we see it on the field. Boston College's defense is good enough to force Lawrence into making more than a few mistakes, and the final test will be watching him play through those miscues in an effort to regain composure and guide Clemson to a win.
One of the things that made Bryant successful during his time as a starter was his steady hand in close games. Against Texas A&M it was Bryant, not Lawrence, in the game for the key fourth-quarter drives to help seal the win. The next-closest game Clemson played in this year was won by backup Chase Brice while Lawrence was knocked out.
It may be that Clemson's ground game is rolling and "down the stretch" is just a series of hand-offs and play-action passes as the Tigers' ice a big win, but I've got a hunch that we'll not only get see Lawrence respond to adversity, but we'll be pretty impressed with the result, too.